Skrillex: Eight Wild Nights and Busy Days With the Superstar

Inside the success, philosophy and love life of electronic music's current king

Skrillex
Photograph by Frank W. Ockenfels 3
Sonny Moore, AKA Skrillex in Los Angeles
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"Want to go to a party at the drummer from Muse's house?" Skrillex turns and asks.

"Sure, why not."

Fifteen minutes later, the car is full and navigating through the Hollywood Hills. Skrillex is in the back seat with his girlfriend, U.K. singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding, and the bartender from the hotel we just left. In the front seat is his tour manager, Road Hog, who's never been in the hills before.

Ratatat's "Loud Pipes" is blasting through the car. Goulding and Road Hog are celebrating the moment, singing "the Hog is in the hills" to the instrumental track. Skrillex – nee Sonny Moore, known to close friends as Skrilly and drunk friends as the Skrill– is recording the jam on his iPhone. "This is going to be a track," he says excitedly as we park. Behind us, another carload of Skrillex's friends and crew unloads, and they all climb the hill, a mobile party. "Every night is like this," Skrillex says, bounding up to the house. "It's just totally random."

To spend a week with Skrillex is to learn to operate with no sleep, no silence and no pause. Even sitting still, he's moving – bouncing a leg up and down, tapping his fingers, looking around the room to take in everything going on. "He's inhuman," says his European booking agent, Simon Clarkson. "We gave him only one night off in Europe, and he calls and tells me he's putting together a party that night so he can DJ. He doesn't stop."

"I book myself tight," Skrillex confirms. "If I have any time off, I get antsy. I haven't taken a vacation in, like, eight years."

It is this tireless, jittery energy that's propelled Skrillex through an accelerated music career: He joined his first indie and punk bands when he was 12, toured the world fronting the Top 40 screamo band From First to Last at 16, and signed a solo deal with Atlantic Records the year he turned old enough to legally go to the clubs he'd been performing at. Now, at 24, he's performing 300 shows a year playing the most noncommercial music of his career – his tonally dirty, dynamically aggressive brand of bass-rattling dubstep – and to everyone's surprise, most of all his own, he has become the most exciting thing happening in popular music this moment. He won three Grammys in February. His Facebook page has been growing by 300,000 new fans a week. And everyone is blowing up his phone, from Dr. Dre to Kanye West, who took Skrillex to Vegas in his private jet, watched him DJ and then invited him to his hotel room to cut some tracks.

"I'm aware of what's going on, but at the same time there are parts I can't see with any perspective and don't know if I should," he says as we stand in a bedroom with Muse drummer Dominic Howard and four girls who are cavorting around the room, hungry for the pair's attention. "I mean, it's surreal when you step back and see everything going on. But when I'm in the moment, I don't realize it."

If Skrillex continues to have his way, he will never realize it. "I don't like being overexposed," he says. "I don't like being on covers. And I don't like people talking about me."

So in order to get a better understanding of who he is, here are a few scenes culled from eight days spent in a nonstop maelstrom of vodka, bass and late nights with pop's reluctant phenomenon.

SCENE ONE
Interior, car, Arts District, downtown Los Angeles – afternoon

"I gotta ask management to take down that sign," Skrillex says as we pull into a parking lot. The sign reads lofts starting in the high 300's. He straps on a black backpack, which contains his entire studio (a MacBook and Dre Beats Pro headphones), and walks through the courtyard to the last unit. "I prefer the gloominess to the sun," he says as he opens the door. "I don't know why."

He walks inside and marvels at the bare loft. It is almost his – just as soon as he closes – along with the adjacent apartment. He then points out where he's going to build a studio, bar and lounge for his crew and friends to hang out in. "I haven't met any of my neighbors yet," he says. "But the walls are thick – and we've done screaming tests."

Standing on the edge of his metal stairwell, Skrillex looks like a skate-kid-turned-goth-turned-computer-hacker. He's a diminutive five feet five in all black – from the long, greasy undercut and thick-framed glasses to the G-Star pants and Converse trainers.

Four days earlier, he turned 24. These lofts are his birthday present to himself – and a surprising purchase, because he rarely spends any of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he earns from his shows on anything but creating new shows. He rarely even stays in the luxury hotel rooms promoters buy for him on the road, preferring instead to crash on the couches of friends.

Just 21 months ago, Skrillex was at an all-time low. A solo rock release on Atlantic Records had been delayed for months because of an obscure legal dispute; he had spent the entirety of his advance, was living off his credit card, and touring expenses and medical bills had left him about $60,000 in debt. (When he was fronting From First to Last, he had an operation to remove nodes that had formed on his vocal cords.) Collection agents were calling his friends trying to track him down, unaware that he was basically homeless. Evicted from the warehouse he was squatting in, Skrillex was sleeping on his fellow DJ 12th Planet's couch in a downtown apartment, management office and studio known as the Compound.

While stuck in limbo, he decided to put out My Name Is Skrillex, an EP of electro-industrial-dubstep songs he'd been working on. But his label, which wasn't enthusiastic about the project to begin with, held it up for nine months trying to clear the samples. So Skrillex released it himself as a free download on his manager's website, promoting it on his MySpace page. The downloads came – hundreds of thousands of them, crashing the website countless times. Soon Deadmau5 was calling to put him on tour as an opening act and sign him to his label.

Skrillex remembers the moment when he realized that everything had changed: a year ago at a 3,600-ticket show in Austin. "At that time, it was the biggest show I'd ever sold out by myself," he recalls. "And I felt this new responsibility, like, 'Fuck, it's real now. I'm not just playing raves and clubs, but they're here to watch me.'"

The other vindicating moment came shortly afterward, when he paid off his debt in one day. Now, just a year later, Skrillex is turning money away, including $200,000 to put his song "Kyoto" in a G.I. Joe movie and $300,000 to do a promotion with a mobile-phone company. "The minute I start to overthink something, I know I shouldn't do it."

After Skrillex leaves his apartment, he heads to the hipster sausage restaurant Wurstküche for lunch. However, before he can get through the door, he is waylaid.

"Aren't you the guy who was looking at apartments?" a man in his thirties asks.

"I actually bought the one in the corner," Skrillex tells him.

"Then I'm your neighbor," the man says. "But don't worry: I'm quiet. I can't stand noisy neighbors."

Skrillex shifts his feet, and looks around uncomfortably.

"So," the man continues, "what do you do for work?"

SCENE TWO
Int. the Hollywood Palladium – late night

The Palladium is packed wall-to-wall with sweaty bodies, nearly every one of them waiting hungrily for the drop. Skrillex stands onstage behind his MacBook, bringing down the levels on his remix of Benny Benassi's "Cinema" until the audience is singing a cappella, lighters raised in the air. Skrillex points an index finger high, as if to say, "Wait for it." The vocals echo, speed up, a voice orders "Drop the bass," and then, here it comes, a growling, woofer-shuddering WAH-WAH topped by screeching electro laser-fire. It is auditory, vibrational adrenaline. And the crowd explodes – the rave kids, the hard-rock kids, the hip-hop kids, the pop kids, all the tribes. Heads nod violently, hands flail in the air, girls are launched onto shoulders, a mosh pit erupts in the center of the dance floor.

Four minutes later, drenched in sweat, Skrillex bounds off the stage. After other shows this week, Skrillex has asked if the mixes sounded OK, if the parts where his overheated MacBook went dead hurt the vibe, if the crowd was into it. But tonight, he has no doubts.

"That was the show," he says. "One of those magical moments." He leads the way to his backstage dressing room, as his "dogs" (as he calls his inner circle) press in behind him. Something happened in the room tonight: From the front of the house to the back of the balcony, everyone seemed to be in the mix and on the ride. "I don't think I'll be remembered in a big Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin way," Skrillex says as he crosses the threshold of his dressing room, the small crowd spilling in behind him. "I think I'll be remembered in this way: by the people who were there, who can't capture or explain it." He pauses, and tries to clarify. "I'm not trying to brag or anything. It's not about me. It's about facilitating a good time for everyone."

And this is the secret of Skrillex: He's not an entertainer, but the host of a party that never stops. Not party in the sense of copious drug-taking – he's never done acid or Ecstasy because he's scared they will change his brain forever, and he's worried cocaine will come with a hangover that'll keep him from working (though a quart of vodka and diet Red Bull evidently doesn't). But party in the sense of constant good times, close friends and overstimulation.

Onstage, he's not so much performing as conducting an experience for every person in the room. Before the shows, he obsessively walks through each venue, making sure the audience can hear the high end from every spot and the lights don't blind anyone in the front. And during the shows, when the music doesn't get everyone dancing, he resorts to peer pressure. "Fuck your camera phones," he urged the crowd at Cinespace four nights earlier. "You can't party through a screen. Put your phones away!"

Most nights end with Skrillex DJ'ing at an afterparty, someone's house, a studio or a hotel room. It's as if he has an addiction to playing music, and needs to do it every night to prevent himself from feeling some sort of existential pain. It is a compulsion brought on not necessarily by a need to perform and be seen, but to bring people together and give them a good time. "I'm transparent, man," he elaborates, lighting a cigarette. "What you see is what you get: I love music. I love hanging out with other people. I feel good when I make someone else happy. I want that energy in the room. You know, no one can be alone. That's why I DJ."

When pressed, he looks into his past to explain his need to make sure everyone's happy. "That's my mom's side," he finally says. "My mom was so loving, but annoyingly overhospitable. I'll have already eaten, like, 10 things, and my mom would be like, 'You want something else?' No, thanks. 'Do you want this?' No, I don't want anything else. 'OK, do you want this other thing, then?' No, no, I'm full. 'Do you want me to go to the store to get this one thing you like?' No, no more anything!

"And I can get that way: If I get a couple drinks in me, that's when I start to reintroduce my friends over and over again."

Though many have placed Skrillex in the role of young angry white male – the Kurt Cobain or Eminem of dance music – he says they've got the wrong guy. "I'm not angry," he responds. "I'm happy, dude!"

He pauses, and reconsiders: "But not too happy. I'm on a mission."

SCENE THREE
Int. Atlantic Records studio indoor parking lot, Hollywood – evening

As Skrillex exits the car, he runs into Craig Kallman, Atlantic's CEO. He pulls Skrillex aside and says he's received a number of calls inquiring into the possibility of Skrillex doing a reality show.

"No," Skrillex says firmly.

"What about one of the late-night talk shows? They're all calling for you."

"I don't want to be everywhere," Skrillex grumbles. "I barely want to be anywhere."

So why is it that Skrillex avoids publicity? Because he wants to retain some semblance of a normal life? Or wants to remain relatively underground and credible?

All that may be true. But there is a much bigger reason: He's worried you'll judge him. Sure, he was touring the world in a rock band at 16, but that excitement was tempered by serious acne, which hamstrung his social life. "I used to hide my face with my hair all the time," he admits. "That's why I have long hair."

But a year and a half ago, "I shaved the side of my head as a kind of a way to get over that," he says defiantly. "I was like, 'Fuck it, now I can't hide my face! I'm not here to be pretty. I'm here to make music.'"

He goes quiet again. "But I won't lie: That's why I don't like to be in the spotlight and in the press. I don't like to see myself."

SCENE FOUR
Ext. warehouse rooftop, downtown L.A. – afternoon

"See that big mountain right there? Just below that, that's where I grew up," Skrillex says. He is standing on the roof of a Pillsbury dough factory that his friend Jeremy has converted into a woodworking warehouse and showroom. "That's Mount Washington. It's part of northeast L.A."

His father was an insurance-claims investigator, whom Skrillex describes as "a politically incorrect dude who doesn't give a fuck." His mother was a housewife. They raised him with no punishment, total honesty (he even told them the first time he got drunk) and unconditional support for anything he wanted to do. This set in motion his somewhat quirky lifelong disgust with rules of any sort and people who impose their beliefs on others.

When he was two, the family moved to San Francisco. By elementary school, Moore's musical ambitions were firmly in place: He wanted to be Michael Jackson. "I would dress up like him every day," he remembers. "And I'd perform for my parents all the time. I'd even go to school in a hat, a white shirt and black pants with high-water shoes."

At 12, his family returned to L.A. and he became a skate punk, listening to the Dickies and the Subhumans, and smoking cigarettes. "One day, the teacher said, 'You can't smoke and go to school,'" Moore recalls, still indignant. "So I stood up and said, 'I smoke. So I'll go somewhere else.' I walked out that day. I don't think anyone should tell anyone what to do."

That was the end of his formal schooling. In keeping with his parents' philosophy of unconditional support, they sent him to the home of a tutor every day, where, along with roughly 10 other kids, he received an hourlong lesson and homework.

Around this time, Moore started playing with local bands, but none of them could keep pace with his workaholism. "We were doing practice three times a week and I was pissed off," Moore remembers. "I was like, 'Only three times a week? Let's play every day!'" He left his most serious early group, the pop-punk crew At Risk, when the parents of his bandmates began getting too meddlesome.

While trawling MySpace, looking for emo girls to sleep with and new bands to jam with, Moore met an older kid in Georgia named Matt Good, who had a screamo band called From First to Last. Moore sent Good some videos of himself playing guitar, and one day Good told him, "We kicked out our singer, and I'm gonna start singing. Want to come and try out for guitar?"

And that's when Moore's life changed. Not just because of the offer, but because at the same time a family friend told him he'd run into his mother. "No," Moore responded when he heard the name of the woman, "she's just a friend of the family."

But afterward, he realized that there'd been clues all along that the woman actually was his mother. He'd even asked his parents once if he'd been adopted, after he overheard a conversation that seemed to suggest it. This time, Skrillex confronted them more directly. When they told him it was true, his reaction, as he recalls, was "Fuck you!" He'd rarely been angry with them before, but suddenly he felt like an idiot – like everybody had known but him. And so, with the family rule of honesty shattered, Skrillex reacted like he did in school: "I told my parents to fuck off and got out of there. I was talking to that band on the Internet anyway. And so I said, 'Fine, I'm coming to Georgia.'"

Skrillex doesn't especially like talking about the circumstances of his adoption, and he hasn't seen his biological mom since he was a teen and his biological dad in four years. "I don't have time to fixate on who I was," he says. "I'm doing too much right now. And I don't want to ever analyze what I should be or shouldn't be compared to someone else who wasn't in my life."

As for his adoptive mom and dad, things eventually returned to normal. "I love them to death," he says. "I want to take care of them as they grow old."

From First to Last had just signed to Epitaph Records. Moore impressed the bandmates enough that they didn't just make him their guitarist – they made him the singer. He recorded two albums with them, made it into the Top 40 and began pulling a larger salary at 17 than his father ever did. But, he recalls, "Almost right away, I didn't have a real connection with them."

The nightly screamo-ing also damaged his vocal cords, leading to his operation. But the bigger problem was he just wasn't enjoying himself. (A friend around at the time says that members of the group were negative to be with and often belittled Moore.) One night, after three years in the band, he felt a little sick before a concert in Philadelphia, canceled the show and never returned.

So by the time he was 19, Moore was living in a loft in downtown L.A. and learning to DJ with help from a neighbor – taking his MySpace handle, Skrillex, as his DJ name. He signed a solo deal with Atlantic as Sonny and released an emo-electro-pop EP, Gypsyhook. The Sonny LP recorded afterward (and never released) is the missing link between From First to Last and Skrillex: It is almost its own genre, swapping the pop for the electronic aggression he'd been experimenting with as a DJ and producer.

From the rooftop, Skrillex points out the spots where he cut his teeth as a DJ. "See that blue building?" he asks. "We used to throw parties there. Also that orange building. Pretty much every building around this general area." He stubs out his cigarette. "The parties were fun, but you never want them to be at your place."

SCENE FIVE
Int. Zencu Sushi, downtown L.A. – day

It is two weeks before the Grammys. More than anything Skrillex has done before, his five nominations have put him on the map as a musician to be taken seriously. He appears to have very little concern for whether he wins, and doesn't even remember all the categories he's nominated in. However, there is an aspect of the awards show that's weighing much more heavily on his mind: Should he or shouldn't he take his girlfriend, Ellie Goulding?

At the Muse party, he'd made an interesting comment about her. "She's made me more secure," he said. "It's hard to explain, but I try to be less and do more."

How long ago did you meet Ellie?
Months and months ago. I sent her an e-mail, like, "I'm Skrillex. I don't know if you know who I am, but I love your shit." We started texting and talking on the phone. Just randomly, when she was in New York, she flew out to Memphis for a couple of days to see me. We're not a public thing, but I want to take her to the Grammys and have a seat for her. What do you think about shit like that? Is that cheesy?

You have to do it. She's your girlfriend.
I love her. She's my fucking girl. I definitely want to take her, but the red carpet can be weird.

Have you ever been on a red carpet before?
Not a real one. Should I do it?

I think you should do it, just to represent for the music. And if you don't do it, people think, "Oh, he thinks he's too good."
Exactly! Yeah. I don't even know what to expect. What the fuck? It's something I never expected. I thought I made it [with From First to Last], then I lost everything and went down to square one. So this is all just bonus now.

SCENE SIX
Int. Atlantic Records studio, Hollywood – evening

As soon as he walks into the studio, Skrillex mixes himself a drink and pulls his MacBook out of his backpack. He plays a track he's recording with Damian Marley and a side project with Goulding that sounds like Portishead. "It needs to go somewhere," he says, shaking his head, "and it's too pop."

He launches the program Ableton Live. Within minutes, a pretty good dubstep track begins to take shape. "I like to make structures first," he says. He then begins creating a montage of layered vocal snippets, filtered live drum samples and crowd cheers building up to the drop. "A lot of times," he says, "the drop is as good as its buildup. You have to get fucking the most intensity at the right time. That's what I've been trying to focus on more. Usually the longer the buildup, the better."

SCENE SEVEN
Int. the Velvet Margarita bar, Hollywood – night

Four cocktails and two shots into the evening, Skrillex suddenly turns on his barstool and asks, "Are you light-switched off or light-switched on?"

What do you mean?
"Because what's the point if there's nothing else?" he continues. Evidently, the topic is whether or not there's life after death. "If I woke up tomorrow, and I knew there was nothing else at the end, I'd think, 'Then why am I more significant than the shit she wiped off her ass this morning? Or what difference is there between me and a stuffed animal? Or what makes a serial killer or a rapist wrong?'"

These are deep questions. Worthy of only the finest margarita and highest-grade medical marijuana. He isn't religious, but he does believe in "spirit" and that "we're part of something bigger." He also, as he puts it, "likes aliens."

Skrillex moves outside, where, with two cigarettes burning in his hands, he considers his future, beyond music.

"One day, when the buzz and excitement isn't happening, I want someone to reflect with," he decides. "I'd like to have maybe two kids and adopt one. There are so many unwanted kids at age three or four. I was adopted and I love my dad, and it worked out."

He pauses and imagines the future he just described. "I don't know." He shakes his head. "I'm with a machete in the forest right now. But when I get to where I'm going, then I'll have a family." He takes a drag off his cigarette. "And I'll stop smoking cigarettes. And I'll start going to the gym and get ripped."

Related
Skrillex Drops the Bass in Manhattan
Skrillex Isn't Surprised By Dubstep Takeoff
Photos: Skrillex Performs at XS Las Vegas Three-Year Anniversary Party

This story is from the March 15, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1152: March 15, 2012