Worlds Apart: From Seven Lions’ Improbable Musical Beginnings to His Meticulous Studio Work
Las Vegas — With his dedication to stunning melodies and intricate soundscapes, it’s hard to believe that Seven Lions’ musical beginnings lie in extreme-metal and punk-rock bands.
With a dizzying ascent to electronic-music stardom spurred on by a contest-winning remix of Above & Beyond’s “You Got To Go” in 2012, Seven Lions— aka Jeff Montalvo, 27—has sewn together an unmistakable sonic identity amongst endless walls of bass and noise in just a few years’ time. Since his upward launch, he’s performed at high-profile festivals including TomorrowWorld and Ultra, toured both as a headliner and alongside Krewella, and released the radio smash “Strangers” with producers Myon & Shane 54.
This year has seen the Santa Barbara, Calif., native release Worlds Apart, an experimental five-track EP that defies any attempts of categorization through its lush fusion of trance, dubstep, and progressive sounds with otherworldly vocal collaborations.
While in the midst of his summer-long “Worlds Apart” tour, which wrapped up at New York City’s Electric Zoo festival, we caught up with Seven Lions to talk about his new EP, rock origins, and meticulous studio approach.
DJ Times: Your venture into music production began when you were seven. Did you grow up in a particularly musical family?
Seven Lions: Yeah, my dad was a musician, and he brought home a Mac computer with a MIDI keyboard. He showed me what MIDI was early on—and I kind of knew about it, but I was really young so I didn’t know how to really use it. But yeah, my dad also taught me how to play drums and how to play bass guitar and acoustic guitar. He also tried to teach me piano, but I wasn’t very good at it.
DJ Times: What sort of music scenes were you around while growing up in Santa Barbara?
Seven Lions: I was an outsider, as far as I liked really all heavy kinds of metal—a lot of Swedish stuff. The people I was hanging out with were all really into punk rock because that was the closest thing to metal locally. I played in punk-rock bands. It wasn’t exactly metal, but it was the closest thing you could get.
DJ Times: Was there any sort of electronic music scene at the time?
Seven Lions: Not that I know of. I remember being in high school and hearing some friends talk about, “Oh, I went to this rave and it was super crazy,” but that was some far off thing I knew nothing about. There was this time my cousin was getting into DJing, and he was actually the one who gave me the first mix album I’d ever heard. Tiësto’s Darkside was the one that he gave me, and that was what got me into trance. I didn’t actually get into electronic music until college. I was kind of messing around with electronic music in high school just because I liked the idea of making music by myself, but at the time I wasn’t listening to electronic music of any kind.
“When I used to go to a rave and heard a song I’d never heard before and liked it, I’d be stoked. Now when people hear new music, they’re just confused.”
DJ Times: How did you start DJing?
Seven Lions: That wasn’t until well after I’d started producing. I think I was producing music for a long time, and then toward the end of college I thought it would be cool to DJ because some friend of mine had invited me to a mountain party up in Santa Barbara. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say that—he had invited me to an underground party and I saw a DJ spinning psy-trance and I was like, “Whoa, this is amazing!” And then I started getting into the whole idea of DJing.
DJ Times: Were there any artists that inspired your move into creating electronic music?
Seven Lions: Well, I started producing electronic music before I was listening to electronic music. A friend gave me Fruity Loops before and I was just messing around with it and crafting horrible songs. That’s how I got into it. But as far as the first time I heard a song and was like, “Whoa! This is what I want to do,” that was definitely Above & Beyond’s “Can’t Sleep.” That song changed it all for me, for sure.
DJ Times: You won a Beatport remix contest back in 2012 for Above & Beyond’s “You Got To Go.” What led you to enter the contest?
Seven Lions: I was on Beatport looking for music and then I saw the competition on the front page. I was like, “No way! A chance to get vocal stems from Above & Beyond?” I didn’t even actually plan on entering it because the contest had already been going on for a week; I just wanted to get Zoë Johnston’s vocals and make a song around it. About a week in, I thought maybe I should try to finish this and get it in because I thought it was turning out to be a pretty cool song. I finished it and got it in within the last few hours of the competition closing.
DJ Times: How did that experience open doors for you?
Seven Lions: That was huge for me; that really started everything, to be honest. It got me in contact with Myon & Shane 54, who then asked me to do the remix for “Velvetine” which pushed things further. It also got me in contact with Tritonal, who asked me to do the remix for “Still Looking.” Those things happened very quickly after the Above & Beyond remix competition. It basically gave me enough of a profile to start working with artists that I had a lot of respect for. I got a manager and signed with a booking agency after that. It changed my life 100-percent. I’ll never forget when I read the news that I won. I didn’t know how much it was going to change my life. I knew it was important, but now I’m playing events like EDC. It’s pretty trippy.
“As much as I like my fans and being socially interactive, I feel like when I didn’t have to deal with that it was a lot easier for me to focus.”
DJ Times: Your second EP was released on OWSLA. How did your music get in the hands of Skrillex?
Seven Lions: The manager I was with at the time was at a rock festival in Germany that Skrillex was playing at. He met Sonny somehow and gave him my finished EP to check out. He really liked it and got back to us, and that’s how it happened.
DJ Times: The EP merges elements of trance, progressive, and dubstep. From where do you pull your influences?
Seven Lions: As far as songwriting goes, Above & Beyond are always the people that I think of first when I get inspiration for things like breakdowns and textures. I don’t really listen to a whole lot of electronic music. As far as the dubstep stuff goes, I’d say a lot of influences are quite metal as far as drumming goes—especially on “Keep It Close,” where the melodies are extremely inspired by metal. The fact that it has a 3/4 timing, too. It’s a perfect circle; that’s what inspires me to write a song, because it’s a very rock kind of thing. When I’m writing a song, I’ll usually start with the drum and make a cool rhythm, and then I’ll work a melody around it. It’s always different, though.
DJ Times: Did you expect for “Strangers” with Myon & Shane 54 and Tove Lo to be as big of a crossover hit as it became?
Seven Lions: Definitely not. That’s the kind of thing you never really know. When you have a song and are done with it, I don’t think many people think, “Oh hey, this is going to be really successful.” Usually when I’m done with a song, I’m like, “I fucking hate this song because I’ve heard it too many times.” I never know what’s going to happen it with it and I don’t really care; I just don’t want to work on it anymore. We actually worked on that one for quite a while. Collabs are always very interesting. I’m very meticulous so sometimes I’ll be working with someone who’s not as meticulous who says, “Oh, we’ll just get it out there,” when I’m thinking we have to keep working on it because it’s not absolutely perfect yet.
DJ Times: Did that collaboration come about following your remix of Myon & Shane 54’s “Velvetine”?
Seven Lions: Yeah, exactly. I did the “Velvetine” remix and I formed a relationship with Mario from Myon & Shane 54. We were always talking on Skype. He’s actually been a big influence on me in terms of production because there’s a lot of stuff about making four-on-the-floor music that I didn’t know, like tuning kick drums and other things that I didn’t pay attention to, because in dubstep it’s not nearly as important. He taught me quite a bit about production, honestly.
DJ Times: Ellie Goulding sings on the EP’s opening track. How did you two collaborate?
Seven Lions: She actually hit me up on Twitter and was like, “Hey dude, do you want to remix a song?” I said, “Of course!” She sent it to me and I thought it was really cool, but I asked her what she thought about doing an original together. She said yes, which was really surprising to me because I was just thinking I’d try it out and see what she says! So she sent me a vocal that she had, and then I wrote the song around that vocal. I sent it back to her and she re-did the vocal and lyrics, and changed the melody up a little bit. She sent it back and I finished it from there.
DJ Times: Kerli features on two tracks, including the title track. What was working with her like?
Seven Lions: Kerli and I work together really, really well. She’s amazing as far as melody goes and she does all of her own vocal production, which is so awesome. She sends me the vocal files and they’re basically ready to go; I have to do very little to make them sit right in the song. My manager hooked that one up; he introduced me to her and then we got in the studio together to work on “Worlds Apart.” I wasn’t planning on having her on “Keep It Close” because I know a lot of artists don’t like to have the same vocalist on two separate tracks on the same release. We were just going to have her write for that song and then have someone else sing it, but she did such a good that job that we decided that she should be the one singing it. I don’t think anyone else could have done what she did; she just sounds so amazing on that track.
DJ Times: The EP is definitely heavy on vocals, particularly female ones. Was there a reason behind this?
Seven Lions: I think it just goes back to the trance that I really got into back in the day was all really female vocal driven. I like Delerium quite a bit, too, and generally they feature mostly female vocals, although they have some male vocalists too. I just like the female voice; there’s something about it that tugs at my heartstrings and I really like working with and manipulating female vocals. Some of the stuff I’m working on now features male vocalists, though. I’m always doing different things.
DJ Times: You cite fantasy and metal as inspiration on your work, from sounds to artwork. Are you ever producing with specific visuals in mind?
Seven Lions: Yeah, I guess more in like colors and textures as opposed to actual landscapes and scenes. It depends. When I’m doing sound design and picking out synths and things like that, I definitely picture moods. Is this more of a snowy, winter kind of a song or is this more of a summer, desert-like track? I definitely do think of that kind of stuff, but it has to do with melody and track elements.
DJ Times: Which came first when creating Worlds Apart— the instrumentals or the lyrics?
Seven Lions: I’m not into lyrics at all. When I work with a vocalist, I tell them what I want to stay away from. Other than that, it’s up to them. As far as words go, I’m pretty inept, so I leave that up to professionals. [laughs] Most of the songs’ instrumentals were written and the vocals came after.
DJ Times: What’s your studio setup like?
Seven Lions: It’s a home studio. I spent a lot of time on it, actually. I have 10 bass traps: two of them for corner and two of them right behind me. They’re those big 3×4’s, so they’re pretty big bass traps. I have Dynaudio BM5A monitors that I absolutely love. I have a KRK Ergo to tune the room a bit, but I don’t try and rely on it too heavily, even though it’s pretty cool. I have MacBook Retina 15-inch that I run Bootcamp on with FruityLoops and I use a lot of Voxengo plug-ins. I use a lot of Sylenth ones, as well as Massive. There’s this new synth that I’ve really started getting into called Spire by Reveal Sound, and I use Nexus and Omnisphere quite a bit, too.
DJ Times: Are you all-digital when it comes to synths?
Seven Lions: I’m 100-percent in the box now. There was one time I bought a DSI Mopho that was a cool little analog synth that was MIDI-controlled. I liked it, but their sound quality in comparison to an in-the-box synth wasn’t enough to make me go, “Oh my god, that’s totally worth all the extra steps I have to go through!” A lot of my sound design comes through layering and reversing and a lot of other things. I’m not super worried about having that fat analog sound when I can just get a plug-in that can fatten up any sound.
DJ Times: What is your general creative process? Do you begin things on the road and clean up in the studio? Or go into studio hibernation for long periods of time?
Seven Lions: It’s always been studio hibernation mode and that’s really how I like to work, but since I’ve been traveling so much this year I have started to work on stuff from the road. It’s exactly what you said: I’ll work on something, get a rough sketch, and then I’ll stem it all out and bring it home to mix it a bit and keep working on it. It’s hard being away from home so much because I feel like if I’m not writing music then I’m kind of losing my mind in a way. That’s why I had to make changes for it and start working on the road. It’s not as fulfilling; I really miss being at home and not having fucking emails all the time and not having to check Twitter and Facebook. As much as I like my fans and being socially interactive, I feel like when I didn’t have to deal with that it was a lot easier for me to focus. It was just different back then.
DJ Times: Have you carved out any time exclusively for studio work this year?
Seven Lions: September/October is going to be my studio time. But then again, when I say it’s studio time, I mean I go to my booking agency and say that I’m not going to be taking shows for a certain amount of time. They’ll say, “That’s cool… but what about this really cool festival?” and I’ll think, “That is a really cool festival, maybe I should take that!” As soon as I say I’m not going to be on the road, they’ll tell me about a really cool offer and I’ll take one. Before I know it, all of the weekends are full. It’s really hard to take off time, especially because my booking agency [AM Only] does a great job.
DJ Times: Growing up a drummer, are drum patterns particularly important to you when producing?
Seven Lions: Yeah, definitely. Some tracks you can tell more than others, especially during drum fills and stuff like that. I think that the remix I did for Röyksopp’s “Running To The Sea” has a lot of drumming that I would particularly do myself. It’s a lot of the more subtle stuff—I’ll make snare rolls that I try to make more natural.
DJ Times: Is there a particular element that usually forms the base of your tracks when producing?
Seven Lions: It’s always different. A lot of my favorite songs start with a melody, but it always depends, for sure. For “Worlds Apart,” I started with just that melody that you first hear. Sometimes I write very linear, but other times it’s not like that at all and I’ll start with the breakdown melody or a drum track. It definitely always changes.
DJ Times: How do you approach remixes?
Seven Lions: I’ll listen to the song and I’ll try and not pay attention to the music at all, instead focusing solely on the vocal. I don’t want to be influenced by the music at all. When I remix stuff, I really like to change the melody and make something completely different. I think remixes that use the same melody aren’t really remixes—cool, you put a new drum track behind it, fantastic. So I’ll take a vocal and then treat it in cool ways; I have a lot of fun doing that. Then I’ll write the melody underneath the vocal and think about what that vocal needs to really make it shine. I think the “Still With Me” turned out so well because I had listened to a cappella vocal about 100 times and wrote the melody and built the song around it in order to make it have a big impact on what she says.
DJ Times: What’s your live setup?
Seven Lions: Now it’s just a Pioneer DJM-900 mixer, my MacBook Retina 13-inch, and a Traktor Control X1, two USB cables, Ultrasone Signature Pro headphones. It’s pretty simple. I was traveling around with this big-ass MIDI controller for a while, but it just became too much overtime. So I moved down to the X1, which I really like.
DJ Times: Do you prefer producing or DJing?
Seven Lions: Producing by a mile—by so much. It’s so much more fulfilling for me. I do enjoy DJing because I get to connect with people and actually see them enjoy the music. Sometimes I have fun making sets and putting stuff together, but I don’t think there’s much in the world I like more than producing.
DJ Times: Does DJing affect your production output at all?
Seven Lions: It definitely influences it. I noticed after the Krewella tour that I was making my kicks and my basslines much heavier. I had been on the road for so long and saw what was going over well.
DJ Times: What do you look for in tracks for your sets?
Seven Lions: There’s a lot of different things about that. I get a lot of music: some that I really like and some that I think will go over really well that still have some melody (i.e., it might not be my favorite thing ever, but I can use it in a very effective way). Those are the two basic kinds of songs I’ll get into my collection. I’ll go from there and think, “How does this fit into my songs and where can I put this that makes sense?” I never play anything that I don’t like—I don’t do that.