I try to evoke tons of emotion with my music. I think that the melody is the most important thing for sunset house.
House music has enough different subgenres to fill an entire area code’s real estate. But Los Angeles DJ SNBRN really hit on something fresh in 2015 when he came up with what’s now known as sunset house — the blending of real instruments like piano, strings, and horns with synths and samples to create the duskiest of sonic vibes.
“I came up with the whole sunset house thing a few years back, and the time of day plays a huge part into it,” SNBRN confirmed to Digital Trends. “I like to think of it as the last set before it gets dark — that transition into night.” (Good point — whenever it’s referred to as merely “sun house,” we think of somebody sampling the old-school 20th-century blues artist.)
SNBRN nailed that signature sound right out of the box with Raindrops, his splashy collaboration with Kerli, and soon followed it with California and Leave the World Behind, not to mention the tough streetwise strut of Gangsta Walk, featuring Nate Dogg.
Digital Trends hooked up with SNBRN (born Kevin Chapman) as he was getting ready to spin at the Groove Cruise Cabo (October 28 through November 2) to discuss the key ingredients of sunset house, his gear and plug-in choices, and his ultimate dream collaborator. Can we stay like this forever?
Digital Trends: What are the most critical musical elements that define sunset house, to your ear? Leave the World Behind, the track you just dropped with Kaleena Zanders doing the vocals, seems like the perfect example of it…
SNBRN: The most critical elements to me are piano, strings, and horns. Having real elements gives the tracks a truly organic feel, versus just using synthesizers. And I agree — I think that Leave the World Behind is a perfect example of sunset house.
You started playing piano as a kid. What other instruments do you play?
Growing up, we always had piano since I can remember. I had lessons once a week for many years, but ended up playing the guitar more in my teens.
Who would you consider your influences on the keys?
For piano influences, I’d have to say either Elton John or Freddie Mercury. My mom was the biggest Queen fan, so I heard them all the time in the car.
What kind of gear and plug-ins are you currently using?
I’ve been a Logic guy for 8 years now, but I recently started working in Ableton, and can get things done really quickly with it. I use tons of stuff from NI [i.e., Native Instruments] Komplete, all the Xfer stuff, Nexus, and Spire. For mixing and mastering, I like UAD plug-ins, and Ozone.
But the one piece of gear I couldn’t live without would be my Maschine [production studio]. I’m one of those people who can’t draw in notes — I have to physically be banging on something.
You have degrees in audio engineering and production. Does having a technical background like that play into the gear decisions you make?
Having an audio engineering degree definitely helps a little bit, but everything I was taught was related to rock and live recordings, so it’s sometimes hard to apply that to dance music. I now like to buy equipment that’s all in the box.
What inspired you to get into the production side of music as a teenager?
I originally was recording bands in my garage in high school, and it wasn’t till I got to college that my roommate gave me a copy of Reason [recording software]. I ended up going to Icon Collective [a music production school in Burbank, California] after college, and did all the audio engineering stuff when I was 21.
In 2010, there really wasn’t a class or anything out there teaching dance music until I found Icon. I had all these skills, but nothing I could apply to what I was doing.
What do you look for in your vocal collaborators? Do you write first, then try to find the “right” vocalist for the part, or is it more of a direct collaboration?
I try to find someone with a great voice who also is a strong writer. Every time is different — sometimes vocals come first and then I write, or it’s the opposite of that.
I’ve found the strongest songs have been when we do everything somewhat together. If you spend all this time writing a track, you somewhat have this vision for what you want it to sound like. When you bring someone that hasn’t had any involvement up to that point, it’s sometimes hard to get on the same page.
What was the collaboration process for you and Kaleena Zanders on Leave the World Behind and California?
With Kaleena, it’s typically been us just messing around, and then magic happens. We work so well together, and we always experiment with all kinds of ideas.
My favorite collab has been with Coyote Kisses [on Vasarely, a track that sampled Raindrops]. I learned so much from those sessions. I’m generally strictly a house guy, so dabbling into future and hip-hop taught me a lot.
Do you consider Raindrops your breakthrough song in terms of writing, creativity, and its sound elements?
Raindrops was 100 percent my breakthrough. I had never really worked with a vocalist before, and wasn’t sure what direction to take the song. At that point in my career, I still was figuring out practically everything. I think when I sent the first draft over [to Kerli] is when I knew this was going to be something big. I remember just driving around, listening to it on repeat.
How was it working with Kerli on that track?
Kerli is extremely talented. We initially recorded scratch vocals in Venice Beach, then she ended up recording and comping all her vocals at her house.
Do you record your music at the highest resolution possible — i.e., at 96kHz/24-bit and above? Is that important to you in terms of capturing sound quality?
I always record at 44.1kHz/24-bit. Everything gets downgraded so much that it ends up just being a huge waste of space. The fact is that 99.9 pecent of people are either streaming music or listening to low-quality MP3s, and would never hear it as it was recorded.
What’s your personally preferred music-listening method?
I love my Sonos system! I have them all over my house, and pretty much never turn them off. I also love having a sub — but I don’t think my neighbors do. (laughs) I also got this thing called a Subpac that’s really changed the game as well. It’s like a sub you put on the back of your chair.
I like that. Are you cool with listeners accessing your music via streaming services?
Absolutely! I love Spotify so much, just as a listener. Having your music accessible to anyone at any time is a dream come true. I think that, pretty soon, we’ll see sound quality for streaming continue to get better and better. Other than that, streaming music is fantastic, and it’s where everything is headed.
Some artists interact with streaming services to the point of finding out where their listeners are specifically located in the U.S. and abroad, and then they’ll schedule tour dates and live performances in those areas to maximize their reach. Have you started using data that way yourself?
I personally haven’t, but my team does go through analytics of streaming services and social media all the time to help influence touring decisions. They use the data to form better touring strategy and make better decisions. It’s also really important to identify where your fans are and markets you haven’t toured on a broader level!
What was the first album you bought with your own money that still sticks with you today?
I’m going have to say Blink-182 – Enema of the State (1999). It was, hands-down, one of my favorite albums growing up. I learned how to play guitar because of one of its tracks, Adam’s Song.
That album is a classic. I love the inventive remixes you’ve done for songs like Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, Ace of Base’s All She Wants, and 50 Cent’s 21 Questions, just to name a few. Are there any other songs on your wish list that you’d like to remix, and what would you do with them?
I’m obsessed with music from the ’90s to early 2000s, so I’d love to do something with stuff like R. Kelly – Ignition, or maybe some Shaggy or Cam’ron.
You do a lot of festival dates and live gigs. Do you prefer festival settings, or the clubs?
That’s tough! Festival sets are so much fun and on a massive scale with insane production, but sometimes it’s nice to play an intimate club.
But my most memorable performance this year was EDC [back in June, which was held in Las Vegas]. It’s been a bucket list thing since I was 17. There’s nothing quite like performing in front of a huge crowd. You go through practically every emotion up there, and you get to watch people’s reactions to your music.
Scenario: You have carte blanche to collaborate with any artist you want from any genre, past or present. Who would it be, and why?
It would have to be Sublime, when Bradley Nowell was still alive. [Nowell, the guitarist/vocalist who wrote enduring Sublime hits like What I Got, Wrong Way, and Santeria, died in 1996 of a heroin overdose.]
Cool choice. What kind of a song would you do with him?
It’d be some sort of reggae-infused house track, but it would also have elements of funk. If we could get George Clinton to feature, that’d be next level.
Totally agreed! Finally, since you chose SNBRN as your DJ name, does that mean you need a higher SPF than most of us when you’re out in the sun? Do you slather anything on when you’re DJing in open-air venues and festivals?
I do have a tendency to get a little burnt during the summer. (laughs) Sunscreen is super-important for festivals — especially because, most of the time, I’m directly in the sun.