Chris ‘Emoh’ Emerson is What So Not; internationally recognised DJ, superstar producer and musician, and under all of it, a lad from Sydney. Emoh may have conquered all corners over the best part of a decade with the WSN project – a good chunk of which he built from the ground up with former member Harley Streten (Flume) – but up to now a key progress checkpoint remained; a debut album.
For an artist that cut his teeth playing DJ sets all over Kings Cross (or whichever venue would take him on) – under the name Emoh Instead – the weird and wonderful journey that has resulted in a What So Not debut album has far exceeded his expectations so far.
“My dream was to play at Mona Vale hotel,” Emoh laughs. “It’s definitely gone a bit beyond that. I never had any idea of what this could be. I had a desk job for five years and I left that, went on this trip to South America and when I got back I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not gonna get another job. I think I can do this music thing’. So I just stuck at it and spent my weeks in the studio tweaking away until I got my skills to a point that I could start putting out music.”
As What So Not, Emoh has just about perfected his art of crafting huge bangers and even bigger festival sets. The last half-decade has been spent largely on the road, honing his expertise in these areas, and it was only last year that he finally reached a point where he could realistically consider putting together a project longer than an EP.
“I had a few test runs with EPs and thing, particularly with Divide And Conquer, but I don’t think I could have really done an album before this point, because I ended up on tour for almost six years,” Emoh recalls. “I really like writing on the road, I find that quite enjoyable – you’re sort of diving into all sorts of cultures and countries and experiencing all these different things. So it’s quite easy to get inspiration, but its very hard to finish things.
“When it comes to something like an album, you’re sitting in the studio for 14-19-23 hours a day, just plugging and plugging and plugging away, doing little tweaks or little adjustments, re-recording vocals here and there, or going and finding the raw file of something. It’s an intense thing to commit to.”
But commit he did, and this Friday we’ll finally have Not All The Beautiful Things – a record that truly represents everything What So Not has come to mean to Emoh and his fans. So how does one even start to begin such a project for the very first time? “The way I approached this album was by not putting any pressure on myself, at least in the onset, to have it done by a certain point,” explains Emoh.
“I also made about 100 demos to come down to the 12 songs that ended up on the album. I almost then didn’t choose the songs, the album really chose itself. It was very clear what belonged and what didn’t, and some of the biggest songs I wrote I didn’t even put on the album simply because they didn’t work for this record. They didn’t work with the ethos and the narrative and the story. I think if you listen to it from start to finish – which is kind of how its designed – it has this nice flow and movement and a very consistent voice.”
What So Not has, especially in recent years — and perhaps even more so since Flume left the project — become known for really honest collaborations that reflect both his own style and the style of the artist he’s working with. Daniel Johns isn’t exactly a stranger to the Aussie dance music scene, he’s worked with Slumberjack before, but for the WSN debut album to feature the Silverchair frontman on a quarter of the 12 total tracks may surprise some.
“We randomly just crossed paths and hit it off, and i felt like we were both excited about the way each other worked,” says Emoh. “It was so easy, we just got in and were both so totally amped. We almost tried to out-weird each other, just coming out with the strangest thing we could come up with. It was easy working with Dan, he’s such a lovely dude and the stuff he comes out with is so creative and interesting.
“I’ve actually got many, many songs with Daniel. We’ve both got a pretty solid work ethic and countless amounts of ideas, so we just kept going and going and going. I would have him do 30-40 minute takes and just let him run, to see where he would go to. I remember the night we were first recording he said he was channelling Bowie in that moment when he came out with these really profound lyrics.”
Johns is, however, far from the most surprising collaboration on the album, with another track ‘We Keep On Running’ a joint effort with US band Toto, who first released music over 40 years ago. “They were so open and so excited to work with me, which surprised me, because they’d never worked with a dance producer before. So it was quite a new experience for me and quite a new experience for them.
“We very quickly worked out a pretty solid method for jamming together,” says Emoh. “I just plugged my laptop into the Pro Tools session, and the guys plugged in guitars and mics. The whole band was there; Steve, Joe and Dave. I would play some chords, or a riff, or a drum beat I’d made. Then they’d riff over the top and do a call and response thing.
Emoh talks through the way the collaboration actually came about with an air of disbelief in his voice. “I’d been playing ‘Africa’ in a bunch of my DJ sets, touring around America,” he chuckles. “A few months later ‘Africa’ actually re-entered the American charts, and Rolling Stone actually tracked me down for a call.
“They explained that they’d come to the conclusion that the reason it had charted again was because Skrillex and I had been playing it at all the giant festivals. [Steve] Lukather and I have hung out a bunch of times since we’ve worked on this new song, and he’s actually really thankful to me, he’s like: ‘you kind of made me cool again, without realising’.”
The excitement around his imminent debut record is supplemented by the news of What So Not announcing potentially his biggest solo headline tour of Australia to date. Reflecting back on his early days, he remembers on the most important lessons he’s learned since he began performing live at a tender young age.
“I never understood how important lighting was,” he says. “I remember the first time I had an LD do one of my shows I thought ‘that show was epic, what was that?’ Now i spend a lot of time sitting with Ronnie who does my lights and my visuals, plugging away at how we want to build the shows to create moments throughout the set.”
For an artist whose toured so extensively over the past few years, Emoh would be forgiven for not being overly excited to hit the road again so soon. But working on and completing the album has clearly breathed new life into the man – and even after a full day’s worth of interviews, he just sounds genuinely animated about the prospect.
“I’m really excited because I’ve never done a tour like this where I’ve had a large body of work out. I’ve never done an album because and I think it gives you so much freedom. You can play to those cinematic moments, those down moments, amongst all the big moments you expect from the show. I was the show to have a lot of drama and be more in line with a theatre performance, more like a hyper sonic developed version of a theatre performance.”