What makes pop music pop? Is it the ear-worm hooks? The messages of love? Is it strictly about its popularity? Can it be something else?
Scotland-bred producer Sam Gellaitry is toying with the genre, deconstructing its simplified feel and rebuilding its signatures with his own complex and colorful building blocks of hazy disco, layered vocals and jazzy rhythms.
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At 25 years old, this second evolution follows his breakout success as a teenage heady beat maker. The tracks of his Escapism EP series (released between 2015 and 2017), were richly textured and slightly psychedelic, and the single “Long Distance” landed in a 2018 Superbowl LII halftime commercial for Diet Coke.
Hints of that hip-hop heavy electronica are still at the heart of Gellaitry’s productions, but they’ve since become simplified and — most shockingly — are covered in his own breathy singing voice. The twist which debuted on his 2021 EP IV is in full bloom on his new mixtape, VF Vol. II, released today on FFRR/Parlophone/Warner Records.
“I never fully felt part of a community, apart from the Soulection stuff,” he says. “Other than that, I didn’t know where I belonged, so I’ve never really felt like I’ve abandoned anything.”
We caught up with the producer to hear all about his experimental shift, his hometown in Scotland, his synesthesia and more.
1. Where are you right now?
I’m in my studio. I moved to London. I came here after the lockdown, and I noticed a totally different energy. I never liked London that much before, but then when I came back in March this year, and I was like, ‘oh shit, I want to live here.’ The second time I came back, I viewed this flat. It’s been three months now. I’m feeling energized I would say, and also drained all at once. Time is very different here. I’ll say that.
2. You’re from a smaller town in Scotland, right? How did that place shape the person you are?
Stirling has about 50,000 people, and that was just the right amount for when I was younger to pick and choose my friends. I was friends with everyone. I wasn’t really part of one subculture. It taught me how to socialize, so that came in handy in terms of the music industry. I really enjoyed growing up there, and I actually really enjoyed going on tour and coming back — but because of lockdown, I was there for two and a half years, so I needed out. I had enough peace and quiet, and now I need noise.
3. Did you go see the Queen’s coffin? Do you care about the monarchy at all?
No, I didn’t get guest listed. Apparently half of the world watched the funeral.
4. Wow, did you?
5. What did your parents do for a living, and what did they think of what you do?
My mom was a primary teacher, like an elementary teacher. My dad has two jobs; he works for a home-care center, but his business is making bagpipes. That’s his trade, which is very unique; handmade bagpipes.
They helped me out, because I started when I was 17. I needed that. Otherwise I’d probably be on the streets. I came in this game too young, but that’s a separate thing. They love it, obviously. They’re very supportive. They’re happy I’m singing now too, because it’s more accessible to what they like.
6. Were you always singing as a kid?
Yeah. Before I hit puberty, I was really good at singing. I wasn’t really killing it at the choir, but I did do it.
7. What was the first piece of music that you bought, and what medium was it?
“Feel Good, Inc.” by the Gorillaz was the first single I bought, and Push the Button by Chemical Brothers was the first album. It was CDs. I don’t even think Gorillaz was a single. I think it was just a music video DVD, because every time I put it in the disc player it wouldn’t actually play.
In a supermarket where we live called Sainsbury’s, they used to have three CD players that would just hang on the wall, and Demon Days by Gorillaz was [in] one of them. Every time my mom would go shopping, I would sit and listen to that album over and over. All the other CDs would change, but this one was in there for years, and I think the guy that changed them knew I would come in and listen to it every single time. That’s really the starting album for me.
8. If you had to recommend an album to someone who wanted to get into dance music, what would it be?
Probably Discovery [by Daft Punk], because it’s so pop as well. It’d be such an easy transition.
9. What was the first thing you bought yourself, not counting gear or music stuff, with your music money.
I can’t even tell you. I don’t even know the transition when I stopped getting pocket money into music money. I never had a job. I’m going to call my mom and find out. I’ll be like, “when did you stop buying shit for me?” And she’ll say “Oh, you were around the house a few weeks ago and I bought you this and those.”
10. When was the moment you first thought, “I’m just going to sing on my own track.”
When I made “Assumptions” in 2019. I did other stuff, but that was when I said, “I just wanna do this now.” I learned that you can layer vocal takes of the same melody, and when I figured out what my voice sounded like doing that, that’s when I said, “oh shit. I wanna try this.”
You hear it in music all the time, but you won’t really necessarily notice it. It emphasizes what you’re aiming for. So if you’re doing a powerful thing, you’ve got six takes of a powerful thing. With “Assumptions,” it’s six takes of breathy and high-register shit. That’s what I emphasize, and that is the sound I like. More ASMR than belting out vocals. That’s not really my style of vocals, yet. I love high frequencies. A lot of high frequencies are on that tape and my music as well. My vocal settings are a bit harsh, but I quite like it. Spiky.
11. Well, you have synesthesia. What color are your vocals?
It depends on the song. The album has the color of each song on the artwork. The song has to be a key for it to be colored. So the first song is red, then it goes blue, then it goes lilac, then it goes green, I think. That was hard, because I had to do the artwork where I wasn’t alienating one color from the next. If I was to do just a solid color, then a red song would come on and it wouldn’t sit right. The full album artwork has to suit each track.
12. Has leaning on your vocals and writing lyrics changed the way you approach making music in general?
Well, I always make music to sing on now, which means it’s become simplified, but it’s more rewarding because I get to speak on what I’ve made rather than just making sounds. It’s just an evolution. The experimentation to me comes from it being more simple, because I used to do really crushed together, compact, filled-up sounds. A lot of the mixtape goes into that territory, but a lot of it doesn’t. It’s juggling. You don’t want it to be fully simple, but you don’t want it to be fully bombastic and large. You make it dynamic. It feels a bit like a DJ mix; my DJ mix.
13. You’re calling it a mixtape. That seems pretty purposeful, versus calling it an album, yeah?
I figured out exactly why that is, recently. As bodies of work, a mixtape it to me is like a TV series and the album will be a film, with an album being way more thematic. The mixtape can have a bunch of spinoff episodes that just exist within the series, but it doesn’t have to be in the same plot essentially.
I’m working on an album, and it’s going to be one genre, set in one concept, rather than it being this mishmash. All these songs are things I did separately, but that’s what I like about it, because there’s a lot of different genres, so hopefully everybody likes at least one of the songs. I just wanted to be experimental and not have too much pressure on it.
14. Is that why it’s VF Vol. II? Is that what makes it the successor to Viewfinder Vol. 1?
So, Viewfinder Vol. 1 is called Phosphene. A phosphene is when you rub your eyes and you see all that crazy shit, right? Getting all green and crazy. That was a time in my career where I was putting pressure on my vision, and what was happening to me was this kind of trip-out thing. The artwork itself looks like what you see when you do that. That was a really weird time. The first mixtape had a really serious tone. I was trying to make an album which would be taken seriously by heads.
This is a full circle thing to that project, in the sense of there was no pressure on my vision whatsoever. I made all these tracks separately. They all fell together, and it came as a cycle rather than being a linear theme. It’s an opposite mindset to what I had on the first one.
15. What have you learned about writing lyrics?
I’ve learned more about myself writing lyrics, because the lyrics have to come from self awareness to start. I always write the melody first, and then the lyric comes from the melody. I never try to cram in these words that mean something to me. I’m figuring out the song that’s already there. I’m uncovering. I do takes where I’m not saying words, but the words come after.
When I go to write a song, I always want to get straight to the point immediately. There’s no poetic trip where you don’t really know exactly what I’m saying. I like things that are direct. If the tone of the track isn’t there, and if the beat of the track isn’t there, I don’t hear the lyrics anyway, at all. I’m too annoyed at it sonically, but once it’s sounding good and all the rest of it, the main thing is about delivery for me. The lyrics that stick with me are always bold and just there. You’re not sitting forever trying to think about what they mean.
That’s the pop sensibility of it as well, because I don’t want people to wonder what all this is talking about. There’s a fear of getting pretentious in all that. I do like chucking in weird words, though.
16. Who’s your favorite pop star, and what makes them so good at what they do?
I don’t even like pop stars. The reason I started singing was because of artists like Toro Y Moi and Tame Impala. They’re not really pop stars, though, are they? This is what I’ve been thinking about recently: When there’s no risks involved, and when you don’t alienate the general public in any way, that’s the level where you reach this pop status. I would never want to be in that scenario, unless the pop narrative shifts into what I’m doing now.
I want everyone to know that this is me experimenting with myself. It’s not being strategic or anything like that. I do have a slight plan to reach this middle ground of people who like Kevin Parker and all these artists who are massive in their own right; like fans who like music in general, not just the product of music.
17. What’s the live show like? What’s your favorite part about it?
It’s very fun. I’m less nervous than when I’m DJing, because it’s objective-based. I know what I have to do, and DJing is so freeform and hectic, because I DJ quite aggressively. Live shows are more challenging I guess, therefore it’s more rewarding, but I definitely feel more at peace doing that because I just feel like it’s showcasing what I say and do by myself. I don’t sit and DJ by myself, do you know what I mean? Just standing there feels so fake.
18. Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I don’t drink alcohol, and I say a prayer — to God, not to Satan. I am religious. There’s drops of that in my music, but I don’t really put it out too much. It’s a creative thing for me. It’s like, I was created by a creator to create stuff. That’s my mentality of it. And also, yeah, especially not drinking because that shit is a slippery slope. If your pre-show ritual is a shot, then it gets more and more hectic. I’m drinking all sorts after it, but not before. It’s a bad look. You’re on the job. It’s professional.
19. Who was your greatest mentor and what was the best advice they’ve given you?
I don’t really have a mentor, but I’ll say Kenny. I was in the studio with Kenny Beats. It’s the best advice I’ve never taken. He said anyone should go to therapy when they’re at their best moments. He said that’s a good way, because you’re not stuck in it, you’re actually outside of that thing and you can get if off your chest without it having to burden you. Going into that place isn’t going to be as traumatic as when you’re stuck in that place and it feels like there’s no way out.
I never had any perspective like that before. He’s just a 6” 7’ human filled with knowledge. He’s the most inspiring guy I know personally in this industry. I see him talk with other people as well, other producers, and I eavesdrop on what he’s saying. He’s a really wise person.
20. Is there anything else you want the world to know?
My whole thing is, I live my life like it’s a film. If you start doing that, and you say from 0 to 25, there’s been a recording of my life — so I believe God’s recording it all — when you have that in mind, time isn’t a scary thing. It’s more so a thing of purpose, and it gives you this focus to have good characters around you.