Pusher's aesthetic is heavy but cute
by Sofie Mikhaylova
December 20, 2016
We talked to the Toronto DJ and producer about his sharp, colourful sound.
Local music wunderkind Pusher has had an incredible 2016. His latest single, “Clear,” has received over a million streams and has been remixed and reworked by the likes of Shawn Wasabi (who brought even more light to the song). A recently released video helped push the song even further, and his debut EP New Laces is racking up hits like nobody’s business, with standout tracks “Fences” and “Shake Down” leading the way.
Pusher’s style is different than most EDM artists – it’s brighter, cleaner, and the sounds are much sharper than a lot of electronics tends to be. He’s got a distinctive sound, and it shows; his popularity is rising, and it doesn’t seem like he’ll be fading fast.
Starting with a couple of opening slots here and there, Pusher is now working with a variety of artists from around the world, performing with the likes of Grandtheft & Keys N Krates, and touring the globe. He rocked Bestival, and opened for Zeds Dead. He’s got creative, funny merch that reflects his new debut EP (shoelaces! And it’s called New Laces! I can’t believe this boy!). He’s collaborated with artists from across the world (“It’s a global village. I’ve been meeting them too! I met Push Push in London, and it’s crazy– I expected to never meet her cause she’s, like, from South Africa.”). Pusher is riding a huge wave of momentum that’s got his career trajectory moving upwards at an amazing rate, all while seemingly still in shock by the whole thing. I sat with Pusher in the green room of the Hoxton before his show earlier this month, where we chatted about colour, cuteness, art, and genre.
AUX: You describe your music as “shiny, colourful music.” What does that mean to you?
Pusher: I don’t have synesthesia, which is that thing that people have when they see colour when they hear music, but it’s just kind of a thing that I go for. I like the music to have a certain aspect to it that’s really bright tonally – higher and crispy, and that sort of sound that I can hope to achieve some of the time. But also to have just a lot of information in it so that you can’t digest it all in just one or two or three listens. Active and interesting to listen to. Lots of different kinds of sounds.
Well your album is definitely so different, every song is so radically different from the other; it’s so interesting to listen to. And you’re right, you can’t digest it all at once. I loved it, and the art on it was so interesting too. Where do you get your visual inspiration from?
I guess it comes from the music, because the stuff that I used to make was like hectic and colorful and all the songs were really short as well, right? I’ve always kind of tried to reference The Beatles in terms of the length of songs where most of them are like 2 and a half to three minutes-ish. I like to keep them fairly short so you have to listen to them more than one time to get the whole thing, basically just try to keep people wanting more. Anyway so none of that stuff had vocals, and it was crazy, and lots of melodies flying around and stuff. And so what I wanted to do with the EP was focus it a little bit, so there was less going on but you still got the same shiny colourfulness out of it but it’s more vocal centred and everything else is supporting around that. And I kind of thought of it, like, if the old stuff was a 2-dimensional thing, then I’m making it more 3D with the lyrical content and I guess it just literally occurred to me to take 2D pixel art and make it 3D, but I didn’t want it to be super Minecraft-y, so I made the arms bendy and stuff. I didn’t draw it, I just relayed it to the guy who I found. The guy that I found, Kenji, he’s from Malaysia; I found him on Instagram. He had a lot of stuff that was, like, Western animation, like old Felix the Cat or whatever, where their arms are super bendy and almost noodly, and so the ultimate visual thing that I gave him to reference was 1990s Super Mario meets Felix the Cat.
That’s an awesome fusion.
Thanks. I feel like maybe it didn’t get appreciated enough. I feel like I invented a new animation style and it’s just out there on the internet. Like, it’s not super Simpsons-y and it’s not super Minecraft-y, because it’s bendy.
It’s definitely a really creative cover. Do you feel it matches well with the album?
Yeah, I do. I was lucky to find Kenji. I kept making him do edits, like “Hide more stuff in there!” Cause the buildings in the background are like, an ice cream cone and a game boy and like a drink.
Like Easter eggs?
Yeah, like little Easter eggs. It’s super cute.
So, you’ve got kind of a shoe theme going on. What’s that about?
Well, the actual album art is the guy in the shoe. And that was because I called it New Laces. Honestly, I just had three of four text documents where I would just sit down for 15 minutes and put down every title I thought of and they were all like “Pavement” or “Fences” or “Shoes” or something like New York basketball court-y. I don’t know, it just felt right. And then New Laces was the only one that felt like a title. It’s like, the new laces, you know? Guy’s got new laces; I’m lacing up my shoes with some new laces.
That could be a good band name: The New Laces.
Right? Hopefully not.
Would you be mad?
Yes! There are like, four other Pushers and I’m just trying to get famous before them.
I mean, you’re well on the way. 2016 was such a big year for you. You played Bestival with Rezz and Jauz. I actually first heard of you this summer at Echo Beach, and I was out there with my Shazam like WHAT IS THIS? I GOTTA GO HOME AND DOWNLOAD THIS AND PUT IT ALL OVER MY SPOTIFY RIGHT NOW.
Yes! That’s what I try to do. Just like, play the best music.
That’s what you have to do! Why would you do something if you’re not doing it the best?
Yes. The tough stuff for me, though, is that some of the music that I think is the best music is like, listening in headphones, sitting at home-oriented, and so trying to balance that with playing live is a challenge for me.
How has that been to overcome?
It’s like having a bunch of different personas fighting. I mean, it’s been alright. It’ll come out in the wash. I’m not super worried about that, like tonight is going to be slightly more turn up because it’s a Grandtheft thing. Then if I’m playing like, the Zeds Dead thing [which was a daytime fest] and I’m the second DJ on, then it’s going to more chill because there’s going to be less people there. And I’ll put it some house so it’s like dancy or whatever.
So you’re comfortable reading a crowd?
I’m trying to figure it out. Four years ago I was a piano player, and now I’m just trying to figure out how to read a crowd as a DJ.
What kind of equipment do you use?
Laptop, headphones, keyboard. I use the most basic midi input keyboard, it’s got 49 keys and 4 octaves. I’ve got speakers too, but I like to mix everything in headphones because I feel like I can hear things better. Some people disagree, some people don’t.
Well, if you have good headphones…
I have the cheapest good headphones you can get.
The Audio Technica ATH-T50. They’re great and you can hear the bass really well.
And your stuff can sometimes be pretty bass-heavy.
Yeah, I try to make it heavy but cute at the same time.
You seem to really like and want to push that “cute” aesthetic.
I mean, I’m not super concerned. A lot of people are really into that internet, “kawaii” thing, but I’m not crazy into that. I just like the brightness of a lot of the sounds and the different tonal qualities. I started listening to electronic music with Porter Robinson when they were doing electro house and it was just like, so many sounds to digest, so that’s kind of what I liked.
Your music is super sharp, I find, a lot of the sounds are very different and you can hear them clearly.
That’s as much an arranging thing as a producing thing.
In terms of genre, what would you label yourself as? Would you ever say just straight-up EDM?
It depends how you want to think about genre, cause, you know, you can try to group people into little things or think of everyone as their own individual genre. I try to think of it as a brand, so I call this stuff “Neon,” just because Lindsay Lowend used to call his stuff that when it was more similar to what I’m doing now, and then he stopped calling it that and now I’m the only person using that. Do you know him [Lindsay Lowend]? He’s got some great songs. GT40, and now he’s doing more weird, experimental movie soundtrack stuff. So he started calling it “neon” and I was like, yeah, that’s it, that’s highly appropriate. But then at the same time I’m fighting with Steve Aoki and Riff Raff for the “neon” title– [Aoki’s] album was called Neon Future which is just like, OH MY GOD, MY WORDS! MY BRAND! And then Riff Raff calls himself the Neon Icon, and it’s like oh, god, my brain. But mostly people are calling it future bass.
Do you just let that happen or do you try to be a bit more pushy (HAH!) in genre definition?
Oh, I couldn’t care less. It’s just music. I’m not listening to future bass and being like, “this is what I am.” I’m listening to The Beatles and Radiohead and jazz piano and everything and stealing bits of it. Like I was saying before, I referenced The Beatles in terms of lengths of songs and I’m referencing pop music. It’s kind of from everywhere, I’m definitely not a single genre-act.
Do you write your own lyrics?
No, I never touch it.
Yeah, but I want to up my producer game as much as I can before I start spending a lot of time on lyrics. I feel like I still have much to learn before I get all my tracks happening all the time. a lot of the time the production is kind of like 50/50, like it turned out really really great on “Clear,” but then I’ll make a demo the next day and I’ll be like, why does this sound like garbage? There are still a lot of things that I don’t know about production that I’d like to handle before I start diving into lyrics. There’s the track-and-hook thing, where someone makes a track and sends it back to someone who does the vocals and the lyrics, there are lots of people with whom I’ve been working in that way, so I can kind of cover my ass without diving too much into lyrics.
Would you ever switch genres and explore something different, like pop?
I feel like I might have a horrible work ethic in that I cannot work on things that I’m not super interested in. So if for whatever reason I was like, “Wow, everything in pop music is the craziest stuff in the world right now, that’s what I’m gonna do,” then I would totally go into pop music. Greg Kurstin, who produces with Adele and Sia, is a huge idol to me. He grew up in LA and did a B Side to a [Dweezil] Zappa album back in the day – and I’m a huge Frank Zappa fan so that’s awesome for me – and he was like a side man for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and he’s had all these different musical lives. He was in a band called Geggy Tah from the 90s that had kind of a minor hit. I don’t think they ever had crazy commercial success, but David Byrne [of Talking Heads] signed them and then he started writing for pop stuff. He’s had this crazy career trajectory and I can imagine that I would follow something like that because I kind of just follow my nose with music.
Yeah, I just follow what’s most interesting to me. I feel like that’s the best way to get at what I’m trying to get at, subconsciously.