In 2013, a brunette incarnation of Chris Emerson told EMC that one of his first career goals was “to play at the Mona Vale Hotel”. I actually remember seeing Chris, his brother and their friends rallying around the DJ decks during my early years sweating on the sticky floors of ‘The Pub’ (aka ‘Mona’ aka ‘The Pube’), which was the only accessible night spot for those growing up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Now, one of the world’s most revered electronic artists and closely following the release of What So Not‘s debut album Not All The Beautiful Things, two kids from the Beaches sat across the table at the Sweat It Out offices to reflect on how far music can take you.
Effortlessly cool in an orange tracksuit (snaps for his style – I’d look like a traffic cone…) Chris takes a moment to place me. “Oh yeah, Fiji, we were up until dawn on that beach!”
It might be that he doesn’t remember me all too well, or that his publicist is next to him, or that we’re in a pretty austere, awkward setting – face to face over a conference table – but he doesn’t seem as relaxed and open as during our past interviews. He’s one of the most gentle humans I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, but I can’t shake the sense that he’s trying to cut his answers short, winding around in circles without giving too much away. It’s a gentle reminder of how much has changed in the few short years since we first met – how many thousands of interviews have whittled down his answers to print-perfection.
Back in 2016, we waxed lyrical about his desire to create a mythology around his music akin to Daft Punk or Gorillaz. In his words, “What’s the point if it’s not going to really mean something? It’s gotta be more than a song; you gotta create entire worlds, you gotta create entire concepts.” [source: The Music]
Now, with Not All The Beautiful Things, he was finally able to create it. With the narrative driving even a rough guide vocal or instrumentation, “We’d go about really just diving in and becoming these characters; speaking as though we were them and using melodic movements that that sort of a person would use in their speech; their tone and the way that they would project themselves.”
Rather than a linear narrative, “It’s definitely an emotional journey,” he confirms. “It’s interesting because it’s not like a story that I would choose to verbalise and restrict, but you really feel it; you listen to it and you feel it. And if I was to label it precisely in words it would inhibit your ability to imagine.
“It was actually quite therapeutic because I came up with this parallel to my own real life that I started putting the project in, and the project started existing in this parallel – I guess I’ll call it a dimension. And in that world, everything is over-dramatised, everything is exciting and colourful and extravagant and surreal… Once I was finding myself comparing any problems I had in my own life to these highly exaggerated problems in this surreal world, it suddenly dwarfed anything in my own life and it made it very simple to deal with.”
The record teeters between his familiar house party electronics and beats that are either hypnotic or hard-hitting. A range of influences from dub, to jazz, to hip hop, to classic rock, are underpinned by clever layering, impeccably slick production and big, crowd-pleasing vocal hooks. Yet the record conveys a haunting sense of intimacy, vulnerability and a deeper emotional undertow through elements of minimalism previously absent from his work.
“The album is centred around dramatic ends to important relationships, and they can be any sort of relationships – the loss of a friend, a relationship, family and everything in between. Not All The Beautiful Things the title is kinda a tribute to all the beautiful things that we lose when we try to achieve grand things in life,” he explains.
“There’s so many ways that this happens in life; it can happen when you think you wanna have children, when you think you wanna get married, you think you want a promotion at your work, and you end up in this grinding cycle. This album is really a tribute to that, to how often people find themselves in that loop.”
So what’s his loop? “In this album? I was working through my life. I mean, there’s a lot going on in my life, there’s a lot that’s gone on, and I’m sure everyone has experienced many many things. The first album they say begins when you’re born,” he laughs, “you’ve never had to encapsulate everything before, so it’s about everything up until that point.”
With the album thick with collaborations from buddy Skrillex [Goh] to Winona Oak [Beautiful], SLUMBERJACK [Warlord], BUOY [Stuck In Orbit] and a long-awaited collaboration with rock legends Toto [We Keep On Running] among others, I was eager to hear about his work with Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns, who features on three of the album’s 12 tracks.
“I actually met him here at these studios, he just kind of wandered in one day,” Chris smiles. “He asked me to come up to his house in Newcastle and we just got along great… It’s awesome, we just get in there no bullshit and throw the wildest idea we can think of on the palate and then start painting.
“[Writing Same Mistakes] was actually a really interesting one – the narrative behind that… he got so deep into it. Like, he was saying that he was channelling Bowie as we were recording and – what was the lyric?” he pauses, “it was ‘Don’t mind / Rewind / Confide in time’ which I’m really stoked with.
“Essentially the story of that song is about imagining yourself or experiencing so much pain and hardship that you just imagine yourself just floating away and leaving your own body. But then coming back with all this wisdom and information and just knowing that you’re gonna be really sound and doing exactly what you need to do.”
Writing at least half of the lyrics on the album – something he hadn’t done before – and working one on one with featured artists to align their lyrics with his narrative, lead to an even greater commitment from Chris to the vocals – his own.
“I wrote a lot of the vocal [for Be Okay Again], and I had a lot of it on my phone – the sketch demo – and I actually brought it to Daniel to see if he thought it was good and if he wanted to sing it. He was actually the one that said ‘Yes, this is good, I’ll sing part of it, but you should keep your voice and record that properly and sing that yourself.’”
Having never sung live before, “I’m a bit scared to do it,” he admits with a grin, “it’s a tricky range. It’s like right in the middle of my high and low. It’s on the breaking point which is why it sounds so fragile and vulnerable which is perfect for the song, but like, you could almost sing it badly. I mean [my falsetto] is probably the stronger range that I have – it’s not like a strong voice, it’s just accurate compared to the middle – which is my weak spot, which is where that song sits.
I think it’ll be alright, I mean I can just sing that into a guitar amp and it doesn’t matter if it’s in key,” he jokes, “just sounds like some wailing synth thing, you know?”
We circle back around to home, wondering how he feels about breaking free of what locals fondly dub ‘the insular peninsula’. “I think the only thing about [the Northern Beaches] is it’s a bit of a bubble. It’s so perfect there that a lot of people who grow up there just never leave, so you’ve gotta be careful, you’ve gotta come back just for a bit and not get too comfortable or you’ll be trapped there forever like in fairyland or something,” he shrugs. Guilty: I’ve moved approximately two suburbs from my childhood home.
“There’s been so many different aspects of my life, over the last few years in particular that are just completely out of the realm of what I grew up with that it’s almost incomparable,” he muses. “It’s not that you forget where you came from, it’s more that where you came from has such little to do with the day to day sort of things you have to be handling once things really get moving.”
So if he could impart one piece of advice on his teenage self to prepare him for the whirlwind ahead, what would he say? “Nothing, nothing could have helped me.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“It… is… crazy,” he says emphatically. “It is absolutely insane. And there’s nothing that can save you, you just have to get in and survive.”
16 June, Metro City, Perth
22 June, HQ, Adelaide
23 June, The Forum, Melbourne
29 June, Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
30 June, Brisbane Showgrounds, Brisbane