By Jay Tilles
At one point, not long ago, Big Data was just one Harvard grad living in Brooklyn producing electronic music as a hobby. Today, Alan Wilkis is enjoying the No. 3 position on Billboard’s Alternative Chart with his single, “Dangerous.” No longer just a hobby, Wilkis has formed a band with friends and is recording his first full-length album soon to be supported by his very first tour.
Part of Big Data’s early success can be attributed to Facehawk, Wilkis’ interactive music video that takes a user’s Facebook status updates and models them into a 3D hawk, set to the song “Dangerous.” He then corralled friends into making music video based on a ludicrous marketing campaign for sneakers that make the wearer head-butt those around him to death. But Big Data’s big break came at the hands of radio and with this new attention came management and a major label record deal.
A heavy user of technology, Wilkis focuses each Big Data song on a particular digital issue. Wilkis describes his band as a “paranoid electronic music project from the Internet, formed out of a general distrust for technology and the cloud (despite a growing dependence on them).” It’s no secret that Wilkis and his mates love tech, but they’re conflicted about how much of themselves they’re willing to give up to this digital beast with an insatiable appetite for personal information.
In a phone conversation with Radio.com, Wilkis broke down why he’s so obsessed with the Internet and the way we all blissfully interact with it.
Radio.com: Searching Big Data produces results from Oracle to Computertrainingonline. How do you get your ranking above the tech companies?
Alan Wilkis: It’s like the most un-Googleable band name, but that said, I think we’re top 15 results out of 2 billion [laughs]. So that’s pretty good. When you go to Big Data on Wikipedia it asks, did you mean Big Data the band? That was like a victory.
Your music focuses on the Internet and the idea that it’s a scary place. Why?
Not everything I write is about the Internet specifically. The way I think about writing is taking on some kind of issue with each song. Some kind of technological issue and then I try to write about how that makes me feel, or if I’m working with a singer how it makes them feel. It’s not always about the Internet. It’s often about the Internet. What I find so interesting about writing about all this technological subject matter is that it’s not cut and dry. I’m not saying technology is bad across the board because I love technology and I use it all the time. These are all things that do make all of our lives better. But it’s obviously terrifying at the same time, how much of our information is being shared and with whom. That’s all horrifying.
Do you feel we’re creating our own Big Brother?
Yes, and we want it at the same time. I think it’s the paradox that’s so interesting.
Of all the places “Dangerous” has been heard, TV, film, online; which delivered the biggest response?
It depends on the shows and the films. It was in the movie Veronica Mars and Earth to Echo and they’re both leaning towards kids so a lot of kids come out of the woodwork online and send you messages and say they’re excited about it. It’s interesting to watch the demographic for each sync.
What medium do you have most to thank for your success?
I wouldn’t be where I am now were it not for the Internet… all the sort of heavy-duty marketing that it did from early on was all Internet-based. But there was a point maybe around December of 2013 where I had kind of done everything I could and I felt like… I’d done Facehawk and I had my proper music video coming soon but I sort of felt like I had no tricks left up my sleeve to get the songs in front of people and I felt like hit a ceiling. I was still working. I had a job full-time. It was still the thing I did on nights and weekends… and granted, I put an immense amount of work into it but it was still just my thing on the side. Then in December I got into rotation, I think it was Sirius/XM first, then it just completely changed my life. It was like a whole new level of exposure. Then KROQ came on board shortly thereafter. As soon as terrestrial radio starting kicking in, it literally changed my life and I was able to quit my job and I was able to do this full-time. I didn’t realize until it starting happening. Like, radio still has an insane impact. With that said, I never would have gotten to a point where I could be considered for the radio where it not for all the Internet steps along the way. People may thing of the Internet as the future but they all work together still.
Had you played much live?
The star of the “Dangerous” video is a pair of Big Data sneakers. Are you going to put any up for sale?
I wish! I’ve been trying. The music video I made with two friends; they were the directors. We wrote it together, I produced it and they directed it. Once we had the script, step 1 was how the hell are we going to get these shoes? One of the directors, years ago, had done sort of a Project Runway TV pilot and he’d met a shoe designer ten years ago. So we emailed that guy and he worked at Steve Madden now. So we asked him on a long-shot and he was really excited about it and he brought us in to pitch the idea to the marketing people at Steve Madden. And the first meeting was like, “so the shoes make people’s heads explode?” Well, yeah! But they were on board and really cool. But the most they could make were nine pairs of shoes. That was the most they could do for free as samples at their factory.
What progress have you made on the album?
It’s moving. I had four songs from my EP last year so I’m going to be using those and I have two new songs that are finished; a third one that I am flying to LA to work with a singer so hopefully I’ll have seven songs done by the end of this week. And I’ve got an eighth that I’m working on with another singer next week and a ninth for the following week and I’m writing the tenth today so theoretically I might actually make this deadline and get something out in the fall.
You worked with Dragonette and MNDR. Anyone else making appearances on the album?
The other ones are lined up but I don’t want to say just yet because I want to actually record with them first. One of them is my heroes. But I can’t talk about it ‘til it happens.
How much do you love “Dangerous?” You’re going to have to perform it a few hundred times.
I’m not sick of it yet so that’s a good sign right? It’s still fun to sing and it’s still fun to play. And it definitely helps that my band is awesome. My drummer especially. He always finds something new to do even when we play the same thing a thousand times. He keeps it exciting.
When touring, who will be singing with you?
I auditioned a few people and I found this girl named Janelle Kroll, who really blew me away the minute she started singing… and another girl named Liz Ryan. So the band is evolving into the two girls and me singing together, doing lots of harmonies.
You’re going to perform at festivals. Do you choose the play the rock tent or the electronic tent?
That’s a tough question. I think either way I’ll sort of stick out. If I play the rock tent I’ll be this sort of weirdo and I think I’ll be the weirdo in the electronic tent too. So, probably the rock tent because that seems to be the lane that I’m in.
Big Data Fall Tour
09/19 — Las Vegas, NV @ Bunkhouse
09/21 — Los Angeles, CA @ Sunset Strip Music Festival
11/03 — Louisville, KY @ Mercury Ballroom
11/04 — Indianapolis, IN @ Egyptian Room
11/06 — Cleveland, OH @ Masonic Auditorium
11/07 — Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
11/08 — Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
11/12 — New Nork, NY @ Terminal 5
11/14 — Wallingford, CT @ The Dome at Oakdale Theater
11/15 — Boston, MA @ House of Blues
11/18 — Detroit, MI @ The Fillmore