People were confused.
When we went to play Coachella in May 2010, as the first show of the Drink The Sea tour, nobody had seen the new Glitch Mob or heard our new music.
I will never forget looking out at the Sahara tent, seeing thousands of people staring at us in confusion. We were known for slaying crowds with anthemic glitchy hip-hop mashups, and here we were, barefoot with guitars, baring our souls.
The idea was to move from the laptop DJ paradigm, where we started, into a hybrid live performance. We wanted to break down the wall that the laptop created between us and the crowd. We didn’t want people looking at us thinking, “Are they playing music or checking e-mail?”
At the same time as we were attempting to play live instruments, we started experimenting with a touch-screen controller called Lemur. A journalist at the LA Weekly described our new performance system as “stylish douchebaggery.”
So why were we opening ourselves up, taking a big risk on one of the country’s most high-profile musical stages?
The Glitch Mob started off as a group of individual DJs. Josh, Ed and myself were all friends through the underground electronic music scene on the West Coast. One day, we decided to see what it was like to perform together as opposed to playing individual sets back-to-back. Needless to say, it was way more fun — we became hooked to the dynamic of live interaction on stage.
We built a name for ourselves from touring, a crazy live show, and few DJ mixes that we would hand out to people in the crowd. Initially, there was no intention to start writing original music or forming a band — we were just messing around, playing tons of shows, and having fun doing it. A friend of ours recruited us to do a remix, so we decided to hop in the studio and write our first song as ‘The Glitch Mob.’ It went well. After a few years of intense touring, we decided it was time to hit the pause button on touring and write a full-length album.
Everyone thought we were going to write an album of party bangers. What came out, instead, was the result of catharsis and exploration— Drink The Sea.
All three of us happened to be going through rough patches right around the time we went into the studio to write our first album. We we were in various stages of some nasty heartbreak. There was betrayal. A friend of ours passed away. The studio became therapy. It was a laboratory for sonic exploration — we poured our hearts out into the songwriting process. These songs meant something real to us. Hearing them every day when we were writing them was soothing; it was a release.
The feeling of triumph kept surfacing in the writing process, and it was therapeutic. The idea was to move beyond the single track party soundtrack and push ourselves to envision a new landscape. To focus on big picture composition, the vibe, the story. We shut out the world, and put our noses to the grindstone for a year straight. Nobody heard it until it was completely done — not our managers, not our families, nor our friends.
At the time of release, we parted ways with the label which had planned to release Drink The Sea. It was run by a friend of ours. Not only was he a friend, but a mentor. He was the one who introduced us to our manager, released our first music, and offered guidance and support. But we had a difference of vision.
And so, we released the album ourselves. We created our own label, Glass Air Records, under the guidance of our manager Kevin.
The record basically dropped with a thud. There was a tepid response in the press. Some people got it, and some didn’t.
We’ve always had a deep connection with our fans. It started in person — in the beginning we would walk down and hand out CDs to the crowd after every show, sign stuff, hang and talk with people. We still do this. Beyond that, we stay constantly connected online. We personally interact with people on every platform available — listening to stories, sharing art and inspiration. We listen.
So when the album came out, we were aware that it would divide our fan base. Some people hated it, and some adored it. We didn’t know how to deal with this, so we read all of the comments. We hadn’t experienced this sort of vitriol before. We were naive. The negative ones are the only ones that you really remember. It stung.
But we wholeheartedly believed in our vision, and so we kept moving forward. We slowly started to hear stories from people that fell in love with our new direction, and we focused our energy on them.
This moment defined our journey.
Releasing the album under our own label turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Kevin happened to have experience running labels and releasing music.
Today, our own label has become an absolutely integral part of our entire creative process. And beyond that, we are involved in every single detail of the music process. It’s become part of our DNA to have complete creative control and run our own label. We work closely with designers on the art, we mix our own music, and we choose the mastering engineer. We don’t answer to anyone when it comes to music, as we would if we were on a major label. We’ve mended with our old friend again, and can laugh about all of this now. Had we released on a label, it’s hard to say if this would have been the case.
After Drink The Sea sat with people for a while, something unexpected happened. People who were dealing with difficult issues started to write us and tell us that the music was helping them. That it was the soundtrack to them falling in love, or getting through a breakup. It helped people cope with dark times, in the same way it had helped us.
These notes became the lifeblood of our creativity. Not only did it put our own problems in perspective, but the music connected us to something much larger than ourselves. We had the greatest honor of our lives — to be there for someone else.
People started getting tattoos of the logo to show their connection to the music. The first time this happened, we were absolutely blown away. Then we followed suit. This is another example of how the conversation with our fans has defined who we are. It was mind-boggling to watch our cathartic album transform into a companion for others. It shed light on the power of music.
Most importantly, it cemented the relationship with our fans as our first priority, like a lighthouse to guide us through the fog of our creative process.
At this point, it was clear to us more than ever that music had the power to really help people, in the same way it had helped us. This feedback loop defined who we are today: These stories we received from people meant infinitely more to us than what any reporter or promoter thought. It helped put everything in perspective.
This is why we do this.
Cover GIF shot on a Samsung Galaxy S6 edge by Jessica Chou
Illustrations by Thoka Maer