Gaining Ground: An Interview With What So Not – Best Before

With colossal anthems like "Gemini" alongside George Maple, all-star collaborations like "Tell Me" with L.A. trap lord RL Grime and OWSLA-released remixes all under his belt, you'd be hard-pressed to find any EDM fan or local music lover who hasn't had an unforgettable experience soundtracked by What So Not.

Originally a duo before the departure of Harley Streten – AKA Flume – last year, Chris Emerson has taken up the reins and put his own special stamp on the project, snagging A+ collaborations with other world-class EDM kingpins like Dillon Francis, Skrillex and GTA and orchestrating bonafide genre-melting hits alongside Kimbra, JOY. and Tkay Maidza.

After the instant success of his 'Gemini' EP, Emerson refused to waste any time, pushing forward with an eight-track follow-up that shatters, what he calls, the 'banger stigma' that surrounds so many producers in his field. From the mysterious, melodic George Maple and Rome Fortune collaboration "Buried" to the soul-swallowing "Trust" (featuring rising Stafford multi-talent Burns), 'Divide & Conquer' is a compelling evolution and an undeniable expansion of What So Not's already impressive arsenal.

In the midst of What So Not's 'Divide & Conquer' US tour – his maiden international bus tour – I caught up with Emerson to find out all about the blood, sweat and tears that goes into writing, recording and touring a record like 'Divide & Conquer'.


Best Before: How is everything on the What So Not tour bus today?

What So Not: I woke up a little delusional and confused about where we are today, but apparently we're in a place called Ashville. I know it's definitely in the south. I have this situation where I go to bed around five or six a.m. after we pack down from each show, and then I go to bed and wake up and we're in a totally different city, and I'm all delusional and out of it and trying to get my bearings. Ha! But now it's settled: we're in Ashville, we're in the south, and the show is looking really strong tonight.

Is this your first tour with your very own What So Not bus?

I went on Skrillex's tour bus last year, but this is my first time on my own bus with the production we've all built. There's a lot more involved with it this time around. It's a lot more taxing, it's a lot more rewarding, and honestly, a lot more exciting.

How does opting to tour on a bus change up the experience?

It definitely makes it better. When you're flying, you get a lot less sleep, interestingly enough. I have this routine where we finish a show and pack down, and then I end up just straight back in the studio at the back of the bus until I crash out in the early hours of the morning. I probably get a good eight hours sleep, and then by the time I'm up, we're in a new city and the crew is setting up while I'm getting my morning coffee. Then it's usually just a day of soundcheck, writing or recording on the bus. If there's a rapper or someone with us, I'll lay down their verses in there. Then we jump on stage, do the show, and repeat that process in every city.

Have you noticed much of a difference with the way your shows are received in America?

At this point, there's actually not too much of a difference. This is my first time delivering and performing a show in this manner, so this tour definitely has a different energy and concept – in the best way possible. But I have been here a lot doing shows and festivals, so a lot of the North American kids are pretty familiar with past songs and my current stuff. As we go further along and the 'Divide & Conquer' EP has been out for longer, it's really exciting to see people in the crowd singing not just the words to the songs, but belting out the riffs as well. That's always amazing.

How do you feel the 'Divide & Conquer' EP builds or expands on your previous material?

'Divide & Conquer' has been quite a drawn out process. There's actually a few songs from that time that didn't make the EP that I'm still working on right now for future endeavours. I feel like this was the first What So Not release that was actually really cohesive; there's a very clear start and end point, and I'm quite happy with the way the EP curves and the direction each track seems to take. I tried to make sure that it did have some sort of journey to it, rather than just throwing together a pop song, and then a weird song, or whatever. I wanted it to make perfect sense. This was also my first time having a hand in the lyric-writing process, and this is also the first release with just me as What So Not. Even accomplishing that for me was a really big thing. I feel like I've proven to myself to an extreme certainty that I can totally do this. It's so great to see how well received it's been.

I think the perception with What So Not is that I only brought the louder, aggressive elements, but I saw this EP as a chance to show that I could pull off a spectrum of things and prove that there's so much more to it.

It sounds like there was more of a melodic focus to the songs on 'Divide And Conquer'. How involved were you in steering that evolution?

In the past, I've tried to write top lines and melodies, but this was the first time I got really stuck into it and focused on developing that skill. George Maple was behind the scenes on a couple of the tracks, and I was probably the most involved on "Lone" with JOY. and her. It's been so cool – a lot of the time you find yourself saying, 'OK, I have an understanding of this concept or this component, and now I want to go and push myself to be better at this, or spend every hour of every day that I can working on weaknesses with that skill.' Then What So Not can be an entire body that isn't limited to just my strengths.

I feel like the title track "Divide & Conquer" was definitely the moment where I said, 'Yes, I can do this kind of thing if I want.' I was actually considering not even putting it out – I was afraid of that whole 'banger stigma' that seems to follow producers around – but I had a discussion with a friend who told me to just go with it and be proud that that's who I am.

What do you mean when you say "banger stigma"?

I think the perception with What So Not is that I only brought the louder, aggressive elements, but I saw this EP as a chance to show that I could pull off a spectrum of things and prove that there's so much more to it.

I think it's wrong that you've been lumped into that category and that you feel like you have to prove yourself, because there's always been a strong melodic backbone to your material.

I appreciate that! Maybe I just have the wrong idea and I work it up in my head. Ha. Overall, I'm honestly just really proud of this record. It took a lot, and it was excruciating at times, but the hardest thing was – and I realise this now – I did most of those songs and others that aren't fully developed yet outside of a studio. I didn't have the luxury of a room that I knew to a tee, where I could balance everything perfectly and refine every little sound. I wrote all of this on laptop speakers, or headphones in a hotel room, and then I was constantly jumping into different studios all around the world just for a couple of hours every week trying to get a feel for every song. This EP taught me a lot; I learnt how to be versatile and work with what I had.

I try not to have a clear plan during the creative process. I try to let it breathe and let it be what it will be, and then contemplate things after.

I've seen you say that you've held back on a debut album because you have a specific plan and narrative for What So Not that is still yet to unfold. At 8 tracks long, could 'Divide & Conquer' have ever been that first LP?

Yeah, it definitely could have been. My team and I did discuss it, but we decided to release it as it is because it was just a big step forward for me personally and musically. When I do my debut album, I want to have taken a few more steps forward and make sure it's definitely my optimal release. I've learnt a lot over this process – doing an extensive EP instead – but I want to take all that knowledge and understanding and maximise what could be my first album.

There are some impressive collaborations on 'Divide And Conquer'. When you were putting these songs together and sitting down with these incredible feature artists, did you have a structure in mind for the record? How certain were you that those songs would make the final tracklist?

I try not to have a clear plan during the creative process. I try to let it breathe and let it be what it will be, and then contemplate things after. I think taking a more organic approach like that – not trying to construct anything particular in those initial stages – allows you to dive into the spontaneity of whatever is happening in that moment. You end up pushing that as far as you can while there's still a spark there. Then you can sit back and look at it properly and think, 'where can I take this? What can it be?' There have been times where I've been developing projects other than What So Not and I'd end up with material that ends up fitting them better. There's always different realms that you can take something. I definitely try not to construct a song unless there is a very clear vision from the outset. Actually, strangely enough, "Divide And Conquer" was one of the first songs where I was like, 'I need something with this kind of energy for my live shows.' When I was building the song, I was imagining the lighting sequence and writing a short story behind the instrumentation that would pair back with the song in my set. The official version that's on the EP is actually just the one I made for my live show; there's a totally different take which is more vocal-based and pretty much acts as a total re-flip of the track. Most of the changes are in the guitar riffs and vocals.

You mentioned that you were imagining the lighting for "Divide & Conquer" during the writing process. How involved are you in the visual component of your live show?

I try to be very involved with every little part of What So Not. I sit down with Ronnie, who's my lighting and video guy here in the US, and we'll end up talking for hours about every little thing in the show. We're always asking, 'how do we get the most out of it?' I'll send him photos of different bands and references so that he can create moments within the show, not just an assault of flashing lights and production. The feedback to my crew on this tour has been like, 'you had less production than the artist who played last night, but yours looked better,' and that's exactly what we wanted. The whole stage design for this tour is based around pop art influences; we have neon camo nets with plants and vines growing all over the screen and stage; we have giant inflatable animals that come out during the set. It's just meant to be a lot of fun. We're combining mechanical and organic, which sort of ties back with what the music is as well.

I've seen some footage of you dropping a remix of the 'Stranger Things' theme song in your set, and I thought it fit in really nicely with your live show visuals. 

True! I didn't even think of that! The craziest thing is that I remember when 'Stranger Things' came out, more than anything I was just obsessed with that theme song. A lot of the stuff I've been making lately has this real '80s vibe to it – even "Montreal" has some of those retro elements in it with the arpeggiation at the start and the softer analogue tones – so when I heard the theme song, it left me really excited. Funnily enough, that edit I've been playing in my live shows was put together in two hours for my first L.A. show of the tour. I'm hoping to finish it off properly, but it's already been really great seeing the response from all the crowds who love the show.

Speaking of "Montreal" – how did you get Kimbra on board?

Well, I did a remix of that track she did with Mark Foster and A-Trak a while ago. We linked up from there and started sending each other things online, and she really vibed it. She came back with seven or so things she'd written to what I'd send through, and we ended up working back and forth on this record for nearly two years. It's a bit harder when you're travelling and aren't in the same space, so for a long time we didn't really have a story for what the song was actually about. To be honest, we didn't really know each other well enough to create something that felt unified until we hung out in Malibu when Sonny and Diplo had a house out there. One day we had this hour-and-a-half drive together, and we ended up talking for ages all about life, and that's when the idea for the song really came about. There were a few ad-libs there already, but the lyrical content started forming after that. Getting to know each other and connecting in that moment birthed that concept. It's probably my favourite track on the EP. There were some alternate versions I did that were a bit more glitchy and big and banger-ish, but I already had stuff like that on the EP; I wanted something softer.

With "Montreal", I had everything done and ready, but the drop was the very last thing that happened. I wrote it in my friend's basement while him and my manager were upstairs smoking weed or something, and there was this running joke we had that there was a ghost living down there that would play synth notes randomly. The whole joke became that the soaring vocal mixed amongst the synths is actually the ghost from the basement.


What So Not's 'Divide & Conquer' EP is out right now.