Published Oct 22, 2013It's Friday night, and Ryan Hemsworth is co-headlining Toronto nightclub the Hoxton: people waiting for bottle service are angling to get in ahead of the guest-list music nerds; perfume, body odour and desperation mingle in a foul, pungent cloud; and bouncers shine flashlights on patrons' wrists in the V.I.P. to ensure that all three letters of the acronym apply.
It's a typical club scene, except this night, the high-heeled and popped-collar crowd are bathed in projected graphics from Super Mario and Zelda, internet memes and home videos of dogs. It's Friday night fever festooned with Sunday afternoon's nerdy indulgences, but the crowd don't seem to notice. They're happily moved by the beats of Hemsworth's famous Grimes remix and pulverizing anthem "BasedWorld."
Days earlier, the scene couldn't be more different. Sitting in a booth on the deserted second floor of a downtown Toronto bar, Hemsworth speaks so softly that I instinctively push my recorder closer to him, twice. Even the faint background music threatens to drown him out. He's more self-assured now than when we spoke earlier this year, but he admits freely that "I'm most happy when I'm just at home, headphones on, producing. That's my element."
It's a somewhat unexpected statement from a DJ who came up remixing hip-hop standards, trap and downtempo, and compiled mixes for Fact magazine, Boiler Room and The Fader in the past year, but Hemsworth has never made a secret of being an introvert. Even his most bombastic songs and remixes bear his signature emotional touch — harp here, melancholy pitch-shifted vocals there — and he merrily mixes sounds from seemingly disparate worlds (Donkey Kong theme music with Drake; Grimes with Lil Wayne; the score from Twin Peaks with Freddie Gibbs) to create harmonious new worlds of sound.
For the most part, his Friday set won't include those mixes. His new material is less sample-heavy and more songwriting-focused than his previous work; it's not quite made for the club crowd.
Now that he's signed to Toronto indie label Last Gang, he feels like he's got "a foot in the door," and he's about to unveil that new material on his first full-length album, Guilt Trips. For Hemsworth, whose name was made on social media savvy and an ear for sounds that might only meet in cyberspace, that's a big deal.
"I just wanted to make more of an album that you could sit down and listen to," he offers. "I've still been playing it at shows, when I do play clubs, and they work pretty well, but I didn't want to make a thing that was just club bangers."
Instead, Hemsworth is aiming for something more subtle, more personal — more like himself. The shyness that begat his "imperfect" and "personal" style has gotten him this far, and it might just facilitate the transition from internet fame to a bigger stage. The question is not whether he's got the ability, but if he has the desire.
Ryan Hemsworth was raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia and discovered music through his older brothers — "sports bros" from whom he would steal CDs — but the catalyst came in middle school. "My aunt got me an acoustic guitar in grade seven/grade eight. The summer before that, my cousin taught me some Foo Fighters songs on guitar. I was like, 'This is pretty awesome.'"
Halifax wasn't exactly a haven for electronic music (he would discover that later through gateways like Radiohead and John Frusciante's solo work) but his brothers — eight and ten years older — played a specific role in shaping his future career. When they entertained friends, "they'd force me to come down and play guitar while they were drinking and hanging out. I was just playing whatever songs they wanted me to play. I would learn Nirvana songs and the Chili Peppers and stuff.
"That was always the most fun for me," he reminisces. "That's when I realized that I liked doing that kind of thing, 'cause you're the focus, but you're also in the corner. You're on a stage, but at the same time, you don't have to talk to anybody or socialize."
Opposing desires for isolation and to be the centre of attention found a happy medium in electronic music, and by the end of his journalism studies at Halifax's King's College, he was spending more time making songs than doing schoolwork.
"When I was studying, I wasn't into anything besides music, so when we had to do hard news stuff, I would be working on music in the corner. My dream at the time was to write for The Fader or something like that. I tried to get an internship there when I was finishing [school], but I didn't. Within a year, I started being posted on The Fader," he laughs.
His remixes, the free EPs he was posting to his Tumblr and Bandcamp, and a 2012 Fact mix that included Waka Flocka Flame, Jeremih, Squaresoft videogame music, Future and DJ Shadow all demonstrated his eclectic taste and won him accolades. Fact called his mix "a perfect balance between emotive electronic music and rock-hard hood gear."
He developed a simple, unpremeditated social media presence that expresses his laidback persona. Photos of dogs, memes, funny clothing, trips to Ikea, fan-submitted pictures and goofy selfies sit alongside rap references, videogame jokes and self-deprecating quips on his Instagram and Twitter feeds.
"I'll play shows, and then after I finish, people will be screaming and a girl will be like 'I love your cover photos' or 'I love your Instagram!' I guess that's a thing. I think it's my persona now, in a way. People can talk to me if they want, on Twitter; I'm down with that."
According to Florida rapper Kitty, friend and Guilt Trips collaborator, what distinguishes Hemsworth from other high-profile social media users is sincerity and openness.
"A lot of celebrities don't want to interact with their fans," she explains. "They'll say, 'I love my fans' [but] they don't really talk to them, and they don't give you any insight into their life. It's all about their career or their brand, or whatever it is they're trying to promote. I have some fans that are really, really into me, [which] some people think is weird, but I just feel like they're my friends. I think Ryan is the same way. When somebody reaches out to him, they already feel like they're his friend because they know a lot about him. He's open about his life and himself."
Hemsworth confirms, "I have shows where I'll have tweeted the day before about how 'I wish I had some cookies right now' and someone will bring me cookies. People want to hang out with you when you're in their city, or [they'll ask], 'Can I please play videogames with you?'"
His shy, relatable disposition distinguishes him in a scene that often veers into self-important posturing, but he also eschews electronic music's other habit: anonymity. "I think I'm not cool and I think that's why people might think I'm cool, in a way. That's why I'll put stupid pictures of myself on Instagram, 'cause every other DJ, every picture is just of them in front of thousands of people. That's not cool to me; as soon as they walk off that stage, they're just as weird as anybody else there. Why pretend that you're any different?"
Hemsworth's success actually hinges on being different. Just as his unaffected personality sets him apart from party-starting or mystique-shrouded DJ archetypes, his music uses unconventional sample material in a way that transcends novelty. He sneaks his oft-mocked infatuations past critics by cloaking them in a dense, cloudy production style.
"I had an EP a few releases ago called Kitsch Genius, and that's how I felt I worked. I was succeeding most when I was mixing Drake with a Donkey Kong sample or doing a Lana Del Rey remix or making my own music, taking elements from the Postal Service or whatever."
In the lead-up to Guilt Trips, Hemsworth discussed returning to his guitar roots and a more traditionally structured songwriting approach, so while he admits that there's still a lot of sampling on the album, he's spent the last year building the album from parts he wrote himself.
He uses guitar on "two or three tracks" and, in lieu of actual samples, "this instrument thing called SoundFonts, which you can use in any music-producing program. People take all the noises from videogames, all the individual instruments, and make a sampler synth out of it."
A handful of guests are sprinkled throughout the album, but he purposely kept them low-profile. Disclosure's Sinead Harnett, Metro Zu's Lofty305, electronic songwriter Baths, R&B songstress Tinashe and internet rappers Kitty and Haleek Maul all make appearances on Guilt Trips, and were chosen because they "embody, as rappers and singers, the same kind of thing that I do, and the way I produce. I wanted that kind of vibe. I didn't want to get super huge, popular, cool people just for the sake of it. I wanted this thing that isn't necessarily perfect; I wanted it to be more personal."
Keeping Guilt Trips personal was a priority for Hemsworth, who's quickly become disillusioned by the lavish rock star life the EDM boom has afforded DJs. "I think the more and more I've played clubs and huge EDM festivals and shit, I'm like, 'I... don't love how this feels.' I grew up most prominently on Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith, stuff like that.
"I think it's kind of a backwards thing where I'm now going back to stuff that I really appreciated when I was in high school. That's making me realize that's what I really love: post-rock, shoegaze, stuff like that. I wanna find a way to make music that sounds like Sigur Rós but can work in the club. I'm trying to work towards that slowly. I think this album is a gateway into figuring out that sound."
He's also starting to emerge from his shell. "I've learned how to make the most out of shows. In the past, insecurity fed the way I mixed. I would just play 30 seconds of things, or I'd be like 'Are people bored? Are they having fun?' Now I'm learning that people are paying, they want to go to these shows."
He's bringing his open social media persona to the real world as well: "I've learned to hang out with people in the crowd, 'cause that's more fun than just being backstage with the headliner and watching them do coke or something. I'd rather just be as normal as possible. I'm not going to be an EDM rock star."
Either way, the future can wait. Hemsworth has had Guilt Trips in a state of near-completion for half a year — an eon in internet time — and the high-speed, high-output musician is impatient to get it out to listeners.
"If I finish something, I'll put it on the internet within the hour, so I'm excited to have something that people can physically hold. It's nice to have pressure; it makes it feel more important."