This snarky tweet from May 2017 sums up the reputation which Alex Pall and Drew Taggart hold. Despite their Grammy, five Billboard top 10 hits in the past two years, and a string of infectious melodies that dominate the radio, many people could pass the DJs on the street unaware of who they are.
The Chainsmokers Talk Fan Recognition
Everyone has heard of The Chainsmokers, but many don’t recognize Alex Pall and Drew Taggart by name or face. This weird juxtaposition can create some funny moments, as Alex mentioned in an interview with ABC News:
“I took an Uber here this morning and “Don’t Let Me Down” was on the radio. We’re pretty unassuming dudes, and the guy [driving] was like, ‘God, I’m so sick of this song! Do you mind if I change it?’ and I was like, I don’t even want to tell him.” – Alex Pall, ABC News.
So why don’t DJs get the same respect as live instrumentation musicians? Often, that is simply the result of ignorance. ABC News specifically asked for clarification on how The Chainsmokers make their songs and the answer revealed that they often go much further into creating their sound than many ‘regular bands.’
Drew explained the process saying, “We play all the instruments on our own records just like any band would.” He then explained the next step, which is manipulating the sounds to fit their creative vision. By isolating certain frequencies and changing the tempo, The Chainsmokers create sounds very different from the raw instrumentation.
When The Chainsmokers started their rise to the top, things were pretty humble because they had to be. Alex was working as an art gallery receptionist and Drew was just finishing college. Alex was playing some shows as DJ Pall Mall and Drew was writing and producing songs, but it was a labor of love.
When we talked, it was mostly about what we liked musically and what we were into growing up. Then it became a chat about how driven and ambitious we were and how badly we really wanted this. We were both very observant about what was going on around us and who was killing it and what was working and what wasn’t. Basically, it was just trying to shape an identity around this. Drew is obviously an incredibly talented producer and I had a lot of DJ gigs and that kind of marketing social thing. As we worked more and more together, it wouldn’t be like, “Hey man, I’ll see you next week. Let me know what you work on.” It was like, 9 AM to 7 PM, we got together every day and worked on music and creating our identity as artists … we’re always pushing ourselves harder to become better artists … it’s constantly a journey of self-discovery and checking yourself… – Alex Pall, Interview Magazine.
The duo spoke with Face Culture about their early days. They reflect on changes and how the values they shared at the outset shape where they are today.
[Our beginning] was just very much a, hey, I love dance music, you love dance music, should we try to do this together? We just talked about a lot of other artists that we loved at the time and just life and things that are of interest to us and got along well. – Alex Pall, Face Culture.
Drew added that one of those shared interests was undoubtedly Calvin Harris, a former hero and now friend of the duo. “There was dance music and then there was Calvin Harris music,” Drew said, speaking about how Harris created his own space within dance music.
In many ways, this is the goal The Chainsmokers are actively trying to reach. While fans and EDM purists debate about what makes something EDM, The Chainsmokers are writing hits and blazing trails.
When asked directly if this mentality inspired The Chainsmokers’ strategy, Alex agreed.
Yeah, I mean, it didn’t start like that obviously, cause it takes a while to build confidence and to believe in whatever direction you’re going in. That kind of started with our remixes. In the beginning it was just like… we were trying to make music that anyone would dance to. It was more about making a song that another DJ would play. – Alex Pall, Face Culture.
In another interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Alex elaborated on how their sound organically evolved as soon as they found themselves as musicians.
When you’re starting out, you imitate other things and it’s a very intentional songwriting process. You’re trying to figure it out—you don’t know what’s cool, what’s going to work. You don’t really have a sound yet so you’re creating stuff based off of other influences and eventually you hope that it develops into something that’s inherently yours and not anybody else’s. When we arrived at that moment, that was “Roses.” – Alex Pall, Harper’s Bazaar.
Drew added insight about their initial goal to Face Culture, “We just wanted to be involved.” He later echoes Alex’s sentiment that they’ve finally found their own sound which he describes as ‘fresh, fun’ and inherently them.
In many ways, these few quotes really encapsulate the growth of the music. It’s completely unnatural to expect any true artist to remain static. As they grow and have new experiences, their artistic identity will change. The Chainsmokers certainly live in a different reality now than they did five years ago.
[Until recently] the message wasn’t about us so clearly and I think that’s why it feels like the right time right now because I feel like there’s a theme through a lot of our songs that we’re making and the show is turning into something much bigger…we were very patient about it and now I feel like the time has come. – Alex Pall, Face Culture.
The Chainsmokers are comfortable with the musical expression of who they are today, and they want to own that. They’re proud of the work that’s led them to this point in their careers and that inspires them to be a bigger presence as musicians instead of being nameless pieces of “The Chainsmokers.”
Actualization: The Tipping Point
In the earliest days, Drew and Alex focused on remixing music that other DJs and the crowds that saw them would love. These songs followed the usual EDM formula of BPMs, huge drops, and both Chainsmokers taking a backseat.
Alex explained the tipping point to ABC News. “I made a conscious decision. I’m done. I’m gonna make what I wanna make, what feels cool, I don’t care if people can dance to it. I don’t care …” Alex paused before continuing, “I mean I care, but like, I just want to make things that I like, and that was Roses.” – Alex Pall, ABC News.
Both members of the duo seem to agree that “Roses” and the songs that followed brought a more refined version of The Chainsmokers. Alex and Drew were finding their style while motivating themselves to reach even further. They were finally starting to embody the Calvin Harris method.
Obviously there are a lot of DJs and producers, but before you guys called I was working out to the “Young and Free” playlist on Spotify, and it was a different version of the same song 30 times over—young, cool, carefree with these cool, relatable lyrics. But I don’t know who the person is that’s singing it. We played that game a little bit, and you kind of have to mimic what’s going on until you’ve developed your skills to the point where you can create something that’s intrinsically yours. But I think we had kind of a breakthrough maybe a year and a half ago where we were like, “You know what, fuck it. We don’t want to make straight up dance music anymore. We’re huge music fans, we listen to everything. Why are we formatting ourselves?” That’s when we created “Waterbed” and “Roses” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” and some new songs that haven’t come out yet that really blur the lines between indie, pop music, dance music, and hip-hop. – Drew Taggart, Interview Magazine.
As The Chainsmokers started cementing their identity as artists, it was time for Drew to step forward as a frontman. As the Interview Magazine article insightfully says, “While artists like deadmau5 keep themselves hidden behind thick synths and earth shattering drops, Pall and Taggart are working to reveal themselves more and more each day, weaving intimacy into a genre that is too often sterile and void of emotion with the exception of drug-like euphoria.”
This perfectly encapsulates the unique role The Chainsmokers occupy in today’s EDM-dance-pop supergenre. Dance music is extremely popular, and the crossover appeal grants artists more freedom than ever to create a new sound. The Chainsmokers bravely forge forward into this space, seeing the potential and ignoring the risk.
We were like, “Well, why not?” And the real answer for you is because none of these people write the lyrics to their songs. We work with songwriters too but we write the songs with them—they’re about us. We sit in the room; we’re throwing our hands in. Some of the songs, we wrote the whole thing. Some of them, we’re there guiding it. It’s always different but it’s always us … We’re at that point where we really need to nail down who we are today and make a cohesive body of work that illustrates that instead of just three hit singles that have nothing to do with each other, and six other pretty good songs, a couple of dance records and maybe an interlude, which is the format for every other DJ album. – Alex Pall, Interview Magazine.
Alex continued, “We perform our songs live, which we’re really proud of because it transcends the typical DJ now.”
While speaking with Teen Vogue, Alex fleshed out more of the songwriting process that cranks out the hits.
A lot of people have success with a style and then stick with it for a long time. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but we prefer to always try new things. Drew sang on “Closer,” so he wrote, produced, and did all the vocals. Not a lot of artists can say the same, but it’s those sorts of risks that can lead to an entirely new area for us … We began writing songs about ourselves and it only seemed right that if we were writing songs about ourselves that we (or in this case, Drew) sing them … [Laughs] I have a terrible voice … I know it, everyone on the team knows it so for now, you’ll probably just hear me on interludes – Alex Pall, Teen Vogue.
The Chainsmokers 2.0: New Music
A lot of music fans know that The Chainsmokers have released several singles since the beginning of 2018. “Sick Boy” came in January, “You Owe Me” in February, “Everybody Hates Me” in March, and “Somebody” in April.
These songs show a different musical side to the band. For starters, they don’t follow some of the written EDM rules that Alex and Drew have spoken about in interviews. It’s obvious that the duo is less concerned with feedback that ties them to a certain set of guidelines.
The new singles are heavily influenced by other genres of music—the music they loved enough to give it a cameo in their blockbuster hit, “Closer.” There is plenty of recognizable live instrumentation from the piano to Matt McGuire’s presence on the drums.
What The Chainsmokers excel at is bringing the infectious hook and beats from dance music to the indie sound. This way, they coax millions of fans to feel what they’re saying and dance along.
Don’t think they’re EDM enough? Alex told Harper’s Bazaar that the newer, truer Chainsmokers are more inclusive.
Well we always really loved indie music, we don’t really listen to dance music, our sh*t is hip-hop and indie-alternative music and everything in between. If you look back at where we started a couple years ago and you look at the songs we were remixing, we were finding these no-name bands that were up-and-coming (some of them are known now, but they weren’t at the time). We didn’t want to just take pop songs and make them EDM, that was not interesting to us, it didn’t come naturally to us. We liked picking indie songs, adding this cool dance side to it that also felt organic and natural with the song, so that’s kind of where our interests have always been rooted. – Alex Pall, Harper’s Bazaar.
Rest assured, more growth is coming. Given the usual Chainsmokers’ ‘waterfall’ release strategy, expect a new Chainsmokers song monthly for the next several months. So far, each single has been surprisingly different from others while staying lyrically thoughtful. The tracks also share a sharp indie-pop sensibility.
While “Sick Boy” feels like pop-punk, “You Owe Me” is a much lighter track. “Everybody Hates Me” continues the lyrical theme of social oversaturation that quickly turns to isolation. Too slow to sound like typical EDM, it feels more electronic at first listen. “Somebody” is a sensitive pop ballad, again referencing the struggle to find and maintain your authentic identity.
There is continuity in each single, but great diversity as well. That’s yet another reason these changes seem like organic growth and not a selling out or watering down of The Chainsmokers’ style.
We are so much further ahead musically than what everyone hears from us. We have some tracks we think are so much more special than “Closer” that we can’t wait to show the world. We think it’s a great way to get people to know us better through music and go beyond DJing as well, which is important to us. – Drew Taggart Teen Vogue.
Stepping to the front of the brand also provided lyrical fodder for the recent singles. The very changes which The Chainsmokers are embracing come with unique challenges. The closer you get to your dreams, the more surreal your life can feel, and Alex and Drew are adapting to the pressures of their authenticity by venting creatively.
The Chainsmokers’ Social Media Presence
The duo’s social media presence is another way that Alex Pall and Drew Taggart are owning their role as a top hit-making duo. ABC called them “super sharers” and Alex responded, “I don’t think there’s a lot about our lives that we don’t let people see.” So, fans who hop onto social media after hearing a Chainsmokers track get to know Alex and Drew deeply and quickly. They’re relatable, humble, fun-loving, and not at all afraid to make fun of themselves or give a hand-up to relatively unknown artists and fans.
The smartest artists are open to any avenue to remain relevant and on top of the charts in a world that doesn’t buy albums anymore. The Chainsmokers do this expertly as evidenced by their success. This approach netted Alex Pall and Drew Taggart a Grammy, six Billboard Award nominations for the 2018 show, a headlining spot at Ultra Miami 2018, and billions of streams.
For The Chainsmokers, social media is a business strategy as well as a means to connect themselves with their fans. It also provides a creative outlet beyond their music. This strategy involves promoting their singles, creating content and sharing great content from their fans.
Are The Chainsmokers the Future?
From their evolving sound to their evolving brand identity, The Chainsmokers are experiencing a transformation that brings them closer to, not further from, their authentic selves. As they emerge as respected musicians outside the realm of EDM, they also put themselves in the limelight.
Will Alex Pall and Drew Taggart become widely-recognized faces as well as household names, avoiding awkward Uber rides forever? It’s certainly a journey we’re here for.