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20 Questions With Baauer: The Producer Reveals the Inspiration for Creating Alien Worlds in ‘Planet’s Mad’

Baauer had no idea that his sophomore album, Planet’s Mad, would enter the world during nationwide protests and a global pandemic. The NYC-based, Philly-born producer (né Harry Rodrigues) was just trying to get in touch with his electronica roots.

He spent his tween years in London studying the infectious, synth-heavy loops of Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. It proved fertile ground to grow his own style, building upon the explosive success of his trap-tinged breakout “Harlem Shake” and unparalleled debut LP, Aa.

Representing the LuckyMe crew, Rodrigues has always been more sophisticated than any meme. His beats are slick and ornate. He’s a producer’s producer, having crafted tunes alongside some of the biggest names in hip-hop and dance. Planet’s Mad features only one vocalist, though, exploring instead Baauer’s inner creative spirit.

The album tells the audio-visual story of an alien planet that crashes Earth’s party, and Baauer even made a whole animated feature film to fit album’s tracks. Its sound is joyful, aggressive and emotionally compelling — well suited for listening in today’s surreal times.

We caught up with Rodrigues for our 20 Questions series to find out what possessed him to take on such a massive endeavor, and all the influences that came along the way.

Where in the world are you right now?

I’m in Brooklyn, New York, in my apartment, where I haven’t left for two months. [Twitch] has been such a silver lining to this situation. It’s so much fun, and it’s been a really great creative outlet. It’s addictive, in a way. I set up a call-in line. I make space-y, ambient, cinematic songs really quickly, and then I have someone call in and do like Carl Sagan and talk about space on top of it. It’s very in-the-moment and fun.

You spent a lot of time moving from country to country when you were growing up. Where did you live when, and how did all those places shape you?

I lived in Germany first, and I was like 5 and 6. I don’t really remember it too well, but I mainly lived in London from 7 to 13. It totally shaped my taste in music and everything. It completely influenced me. It was the late ’90s to early 2000s, and electronic music was just on the radio. I would just hear it everywhere, and it sort of just creeped in.

What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do they think of what you do now?

My dad is a consultant; not the coolest job, honestly. Shout-out to my dad. We got to move around to all these places. I feel so lucky that I was able to live in England for as long as I did, because I love it so much.

They’re super proud of me right now. They’re very happy, especially because they have other kids — shout-out to my brothers and sisters — who are still in school. School is very financially taxing. The fact that I’m not in school and [am] making money, they’re happy about it.

Did you move to New York after London?

I was in London until 13, then moved back to the States, to Connecticut, then back to London for senior year of high school, which is a weird little move. Then after that, I went to New York for college. I’d been working [on music] throughout high school, just for fun. I liked electronic music. I illegally ripped some program and I was like, “Let’s try it out,” completely just for fun, just to try to copy all the people who I loved listening to.

What was the first song you ever made?

I don’t remember the first song. I know that the very first program I was using was Sony Acid Pro. I remember some of the early songs, I was collaborating, me and my buddies, my little crew who listened to electronic music in high school. We made a little album mixtape thing. I wish I still had it, because there was some good stuff on there.

What was the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and do you remember what medium it was?

Definitely CD, and I think it has to be Daft Punk Discovery, which is just the absolute, like, so sick. I listened to it so much. It has always been one of my top influences. Absolute favorite album because it just hit me at that perfect time when music hits you and really has that effect.

What’s the last song you listened to?

I was just checking out the new Oliver Tree video, “Bury Me Alive.” It just dropped. He’s walking around at night, and he has balls on his chin. It’s an interesting concept.

When and where was the first rave you ever went to? I guess you were too young for London’s crowd.

When I went back for the senior year, that was really dope because I already built up such an appreciation for everything. I was 18, and I was able to actually go to all these clubs and shows. Before then, I did a Euro trip when I was 17 with my friend to Amsterdam, and went to this one called Sensation White. It’s a big stadium and everyone wears white. It’s pretty corny, but at the time it seemed very cool.

Is it true your yearbook photo said you wished you could play Fabric’s Room One?

Yes, it did. I still haven’t, but I am determined to. I’m happy because Fabric, it was looking kind of rocky there for a bit. It’s an absolute goal of mine, and if I ever do, I’m using that for the flyer. I’m insisting, because that will be such a victorious moment.

What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened during one of your sets?

One time, the act who was on before me was upset. It was a festival. I really don’t know what happened at all, but they were upset for some reason. Everything seemed normal to me, but then mid set, one of them just came and dumped a whole bottle of water on my head. I was just drenched and confused. He was p–sed, and people were holding him back. He was yelling and trying to come at me. That was a weird one. He left by the time I was done.

What was going through your mind during the “Harlem Shake” viral explosion?

Honestly, similar to the last story, I was very clueless and just going with it. I did not know why or what, but I was just like, “All right, I’ll just go with this.” That’s absolutely the mentality I had. Thinking back, should I have been planning things out a little more? Strategizing? The fact was, I had no idea what was going on. I was just flying by the seat of my pants. It was on a late-night show, I think Fallon. I was just like, “What?”

You’ve also done a lot of producing for others, like Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. What does producing for other artists and artists of that caliber teach you about producing for yourself?

Having something that’s unique about what you make, having a piece of you in your song, that’s what gets people to respond to it. That’s what gets people to notice your thing over the hundreds of other stuff coming towards them.

Are there any collaborations that stick out in your mind as being a crazy?

I didn’t collab with G Dragon. That was all over email, but then I did go to South Korea and played a little show at a tiny club. This guy was like, “I know G’s crew. I could probably get him to come through.”

I played “Temple” and it was packed with fans, like tween girls. During my whole set, they were sort of bobbing and dancing, whatever, and then G peeked his head out when I played “Temple,” and they just were absolutely insane. I’d never seen psycho fans like that. When he was leaving, they had to shove through a huge crowd. That was great.

Going to Planet’s Mad, what inspired this return to this instrumental, rave-y sound?

It’s going back to the music I was listening to on the bus in England, that sort of big beat stuff that first influenced me — Fatboy Slim, Basement Jaxx, Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers. It all feels very, like, fun party music, using samples, and it can be goofy at times. I wanted to use that feeling, to make something in that spirit. It’s also the second album, and that’s kind of tricky, which direction to go with it. I decided to just go crazy creatively. Instead of do a bunch of features, try to do me as hard as possible.

Where did this insane alien narrative come from?

I first thought it’d be cool to use the album to tell a story, as a fun project at the least. I was really inspired by Porter Robinson and what he did with Worlds and Virtual Self. It’s not just an album of 12 tracks or whatever. He’s creating a world that his fans can come in and explore, you know? I love that, and so I wanted to do that.

Did you do a whole Interstellar 5555 thing where you made videos for the whole album?

Yeah, great reference. It’s exactly what I did, so there’s more coming. These videos that have come out are the big blockbuster ones, and the next videos are all going to be exploring this planet.

I worked with this guy Rick Farin and his partner Claire Cochran. Their studio is called Actual Objects, and they make everything in Unreal Engine. It’s a video-game building engine, so they are able to do things insanely quickly. I was like, “Hey, can we do a thing where there’s a big panic riot in Times Square?” He’s like, “Oh yeah, I have a Time Square model. I just have it here.”

It’s just such a cool medium because it’s so flexible and fast. It’s never something I would have thought of. It’s only through coming across Rick’s stuff in a magazine and then hitting them up randomly. He’s definitely been pushed to his limits, which I’m so stoked on. I’m so happy to be working with someone who’s also willing to push and experiment, maybe go into a zone that’s uncomfortable. It’s been so cool seeing all my weird ideas come to reality.

This album is so textural. It’s very impressive, all the layering of everything. It’s like I can feel the drums. How did you push yourself in the studio?

Definitely with texture. That’s something I love, and that’s something I want to use as a strength. It’s so cool to hear you say that, because I think people appreciate that and there’s not that much of that in electronic music. A lot of it is very clean and polished and smooth. I love to put something rough that has texture to it.

Also having no features meant having to keep a song entertaining throughout just instrumentally or using the sample. Again, going back to Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim, they would just leave the same sample going for the whole song — Fatboy Slim “Praise You” or whatever.

Another thing throughout the process, I met and started to work with this guy Holly from Portugal, who is this insane produce. I’ve really learned to appreciate his use of texture and bizarre choices. I started off just by sending one song. I was like, “Hey, man, here’s something. You think you could add something?” In, like, five minutes, he sent something back just absolutely psycho. I was like, “Oh my God. Wait, try this one now,” and same thing. I’ve never really worked with someone in that way before either, and I’m so glad I did, because it added a whole new element to all of these tracks that never would have been there.

Speaking of samples, I hear jungle bird noises and little blips of people’s voices.

There’s a lot of weird s–t in there. There’s a kid talking about a dream he had. I got most of the stuff from old ’90s sample records, which was cool but also proved to be difficult when it came to clearing all the samples. We did it in the end, but it was tough because the CD itself was taking samples from all different places. The freakin’ ’90s were the Wild West.

Do any of the other tracks have special backstories that you’d like to share?

The one “Home,” which is the one that has a feature. It’s not like the other ones. It’s soft. That was a piano piece I recorded this guy Eli on, an amazing piano player I work with sometimes. I recorded him jamming one time, and I held on to that for years, played it for different people and was always trying to get someone to sing over it. It never felt like it was right. The piano piece was so nice on its own.

Then I got Bipolar Sunshine to sing it, and he was so nice. Then, finishing up the album, right before I had to turn it in, Hudson Mohawk was like, “Yo, I f–ked with this a little bit. The label guy Dom sent it to me.” He took it to the next level. That’s a guy I’ve admired and has been such an inspiration to me. It was so cool having him jump on this song at the last minute.

Why is the planet so mad?

I’ve tried to zhuzh up the story, but it was just the demo title of the song. I had the whole concept about a planet, and then I thought, “OK, this song could be when the planet is mad. It is upset now.” Over time it turned into “This could mean a lot of things.” This could be talking about Earth that’s mad. Now, it even has another weird meaning you could assign to it. It turned into something you could put your own meaning to.

Since our interview in May, Baauer has raised $6,000 for bail funds and charities fighting for racial justice through Bandcamp, Twitch, Discord and donations collected during his Digital Mirage live set on YouTube. Planet’s Mad is out on LuckyMe Friday, June 19, and all Bandcamp sales that day will be donated to the NAACP. 

Check out the full Planet’s Mad Movie below.

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