In 2015, the Dutch electronic producers in the group Yellow Claw released their debut full-length, Blood For Mercy, on Diplo's Mad Decent label. The record landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Dance Albums chart, so it's surprising to hear that the men behind it wanted to take a drastically different approach to their new LP, Los Amsterdam.
"We did everything wrong that we could've have done wrong [making Blood For Mercy]," says Nils Rondhuis. "We were really compromising between: what do I like to listen to, what do I want to play in the club, and even what can people listen to at home," adds Jim Aasgier.
Or, perhaps, not compromising, but trying too hard to to satisfy all three constituencies. "We put 17 songs on the album!" Aasgier says, feigning shock. "Who does that?! I think originally we tried to put 20 songs on there -- it was basically just every song we finished that year we tried to put it on the album. But that doesn't work; it was just like a big EP."
Aasgier and Rondhuis are sitting at a table in the cafe of their hotel in midtown Manhattan, and both are clad appropriately in Yellow Claw gear. Aasgier, bearded, is wearing a navy blue jacket with a red Blood For Mercy insignia. Rondhuis, clean-shaven and pale, with one rogue lock of hair reaching down onto his forehead, sports a black hoodie with Los Amsterdam emblazoned on the front.
It's one of the coldest days that New York has seen recently -- "I went out last night," Aasgier quips, "and I just wore all the clothes I had with me" -- and the duo are busy rearranging flights, because a blizzard is due to touch down in the small hours of the next morning. Rondhuis is headed home to Amsterdam, while Aasgier is looping back to L.A., where much of the formative work on Los Amsterdam's 13 tracks took place, leading Yellow Claw to pay tribute to the city in the record's title.
The duo decamped west roughly a year ago in search of inspiration. "We took a backpack of really stripped-down demos and wrote songs every day," Rondhuis says. "In the first four weeks, we were basically open to everybody," Aasgier remembers. "Anybody who wanted to come in and work on a song, we did it. A lot of stuff sucked, but in the last few weeks, we started asking back the people we had a connection with, and 70% or 80% of the basics were done there."
The sunny climate and revolving studio door weren't the only differences during the recording process -- Yellow Claw started as a trio, but their third member, MC Bizzey, left the group in 2016. "We've always taken care of the music side of it," Aasgier says. "For the previous album, already he was going through some personal stuff, wanted to spend more time at home, so he wasn't really in the studio for that one." Despite MC Bizzey's departure, Aasgier emphasizes that their relationship is "all good." "We don't want to make it sound like hard feelings," he says.
Yellow Claw are known for a sharp-toothed, obliterating sound -- "loud, frenzied, blasting beats," as Aasgier puts it -- but they don't open Los Amsterdam with a wallop. Instead, the record begins with fluffy, sustained synth chords and a crystalline female vocal. Hammering percussion doesn't show up for nearly 90 seconds.
Fans needn't worry that the group has moved over-far from their aggressive roots, though. It doesn't take long before Los Amsterdam is squirming and thundering with the vigor that suits main stages at electronic music festivals. Yellow Claw also recruited authoritative rappers, notably Juicy J and Quavo of Migos, to contribute to two of the album's tracks, "City On Lockdown" and "Stacks." Rondhuis and Aasgier are effusive about both of these MCs, reminiscing happily about the energizing pre-show impacts of Juicy J's Still Trippy album and referring to Quavo is "a legend." "We were really lucky," Aasgier says. "We got his part of 'Stacks' maybe 4 or 5 months ago? And then [Migos' 'Bad and Boujee'] blew up."
The duo rely on a special metric to determine if a tune like "Stacks" is a success. "If you drop a club song like that, it's not about views or plays," Aasgier explains. "If the DJs are hitting you up for it, in your DMs, texting you, that's how you know it's a good one." "A lot of people have, right?" asks Rondhuis. "A lot," Aasgier responds.
Yellow Claw prioritized a balanced sound on Los Amsterdam, so they made an effort to reach beyond turbocharged trap music -- Aasgier mentions Daft Punk's Tron soundtrack and Kavinsky's "Nightcall" as important reference points during the recording process. In that vein, Los Amsterdam's current single, "Good Day," aims to hook listeners with melody: vocoder vocals from Swedish singer Elliphant and a sturdy spine of synthesizers. The French producer DJ Snake chops up Elliphant's voice and weaves the pitch-altered pieces into chirpy tapestries that hang between the verses.
"Good Day" was not the first thing that Yellow Claw and Elliphant came up with in the studio. Initially they created what Rondhuis describes as "Vampire Weekend mixed with EDM."
Back in the Blood For Mercy days, that track would probably have ended up on the album, but not this time. They went back to the drawing board and ended up with "Good Day," which recently cracked Billboard's Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart.
"We were like, 'fuck it, let's do the complete opposite [of what we just did],'" Aasgier says, reflecting Yellow Claw's recent commitment to precise, careful album-making. "Let's do something beautiful."