D.A. Wallach Writes a New Chapter

By
Photography Guy Lowndes

Published October 21, 2015

D.A. WALLACH IN LOS ANGELES, OCTOBER 2015. PHOTOS: GUY LOWNDES. STYLING: DANI + EMMA. GROOMING: THEA ISTENES FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING CLARINS SKINCARE. SPECIAL THANKS: CADILLAC CORNER.

D.A. Wallach is most certainly a well-versed jack-of-all-trades. First discovered within the music industry in 2007 by Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and Jermaine Dupri as the singer of Chester French, the Harvard graduate also received the university’s first certificate in the Bantu language Gikuyu, invests with and advises at various technology companies, is currently Spotifiy’s artist-in-residence, and just last week released his first solo album Time Machine via Harvest Records. Next year, he’ll make a cameo in his friend (and famed director) Damien Chazelle‘s La La Land, starring Finn Wittrock, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, and J.K. Simmons.

In spite of his proven talent, Wallach originally made his solo debut anonymously. In 2013, a mysterious single titled “Glowing” was released with a music video directed by Tyler, The Creator. The goal: to allow people to appreciate the song purely as an act of creative expression, not because of a name attached to the music. Later, during an interview with MTV, he admitted to being the mind behind the song, and shortly thereafter released “Farm,” which now closes Time Machine.

As an artist on his own, Wallach explores a new sound. Straying from the highly produced, pop anthems of Chester French, his solo material focuses on meaningful lyricism and powerful, yet subtle compositions. Piano presides over synths, and vocals are placed at the forefront. 

Just before the release of Time Machine, but after La La Land finished filming, Wallach caught up with Chazelle over the phone.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Hey, D.A.

D.A. WALLACH: No dick jokes, Damien. 

CHAZELLE: Got it. Okay. Where should we begin? [both laugh] Maybe we should talk about how we first came into each others’ orbits.

WALLACH: Well, I think we met for the first time in a practice room in the basement of Max’s [Mawell Drummey] or [Justin] Hurwitz’s dorm? I tried out to be the drummer for what became Chester French and the next time I came back, you had been selected as the actual drummer. I think meeting you was learning that I was not the drummer for the band. [laughs]

CHAZELLE: I remember Hurwitz was always really instrumental. He was the pianist in Chester French, and is now a composer who I work with. He first started the band and brought us together. But I remember I knew of you beforehand, I knew of you as “the other drummer on campus.” Long story short, it’s purely through music that the two of us met each other in college as bandmates.

WALLACH: I feel like within the band, Max and I were writing a lot of material together, but you were the mediator. I trusted your taste more than Max’s taste in a certain way—or more than Hurwitz’s taste, certainly. I didn’t actually know Hurwitz was great at songwriting until I heard the music he was doing for your movie. [laughs] In retrospect I feel like, “Man, we should have been including him in the songwriting process!” Lo and behold he turns out to be a genius.

CHAZELLE: What I remember that was interesting—[Michael William] Judge, Hurwitz, and Max, all came from these jam-band kind of takes, and you and I were the people who were into the Beach Boys or The Beatles.

WALLACH: I was definitely, at the outset of the band, the least capable musician on a technical level. I’d never sung before. I only viewed myself as a drummer. Really, I have you to thank for forcing me to sing. Once you were the drummer there was no choice but for me to assume that role.

CHAZELLE: [laughs] Well thanks.

WALLACH: Why did you leave the band? What happened? I don’t even remember.

CHAZELLE: I was getting roped up in this senior thesis of mine that was a movie and taking up all my time. Also, we’d kinda stopped, as a band, playing gigs. It had become much more [of a] create-music-in-the-studio kind of thing. I didn’t have that much to contribute; I don’t really know any music beyond drums. So time-wise, I wound up just getting totally sucked in by movie stuff. I’d come in every now and again to do drums for you guys, but that was about it.

Then you guys got a record deal and went out to L.A. When I finally flew out to L.A. at the end of my senior year, you and Max were the only two people I knew. You were my one connection to the West Coast—Max is the one who picked me up at the airport and he brought me to your place. My first L.A. day was spent with you fine gentlemen.

WALLACH: Oh wow, that’s great. One thing that might be interesting for us to talk about is whether or not there’s any continuity between what we were doing in college creatively and what we’re doing now.

CHAZELLE: Even to backtrack from that—do you feel like all the work you’ve done in music, that it almost started by happenstance? Like the way you became the singer in Chester French? Or did you grow up with music being a big part of you? Would you have planned this all?

WALLACH: There were a lot of random factors. At the end of high school I felt like the two paths I could go down would be a) college, doing something more intellectual, and becoming a grown up, and the other, b) would have been to do what the lead in Whiplash does.

In a certain respect, I really thought I’d try to get into Berklee or the Manhattan School of Music and seriously try to become a great jazz drummer. I suppose I’ve always lacked the discipline and practice ethic that’s required for that. I had to learn, over time, the bolts in the art I make and in life; I have to turn being a dilettante into a strength. I’m not the guy whose gonna shoot 10,000 free-throws until I’m Michael Jordan—and it did happen kind of accidentally that I said, “Okay, yeah, I’ll try singing.”

But the process of being an artist in the world was so compelling because of the freedom it gives you; it’s always been really important to me to be able to say what I want, to have freedom of thought and expression—not get beaten down into some corporate existence, where there’s so much risk of embracing the truth that you feel like you can’t do it. I feel that way about everything I do, not just music. I want that ethic of being independent and open-minded, having a lot of integrity, intellectually, to be part of anything I do.

CHAZELLE: I knew drums were a big part of your growing up, but I actually didn’t know the extent of it. Part of me always considers myself a failed drummer as well. I grew up having two things I thought I had any kind of promise with: one was drums, the other was movies. You met me when I still had a foot in each. During that process, you saw me removing one foot from and going full-fledged not in music.

But I never thought of myself as that kind of perfectionist person, either. I had that moment where I was like, “Maybe I’ll go to music school and devote everything in my being to be beco,ing a great jazz drummer,” but I felt that no matter how many thousands of hours that I put into it, there was some fundamental thing that you needed and I didn’t have it. Whether or not that’s actually true, a lot of my subsequent work has come from that decision.

When you talk about dilettantism a strength, that’s one thing I’ve been thinking about in general with any artist. There’s someone who said this in some eloquent way and I’m going to botch it, but there’s the idea that every artist fails at being the artist that they think they should be and winds up becoming themselves. It always starts with that idea of what or who you’re going to be, maybe you’re emulating someone or something, and you invariably fail because you’re not that someone or something. Ideally that failure becomes who you are.

WALLACH: It reminds me of—we talked about this when we went to a concert a few months ago—this guy John Brockman, who’s the agent to all the top scientists in the world. One of the things he said was when he was in the ’60s hanging out with Andy Warhol, and all of these top physicists, and people who now seem amazing in retrospect, he made a decision that he was going to treat those people like they were important. He and his friends were somehow “required” to become the people from their moment. He thought, “I’m going to start thinking of my friend who’s a writer as Hemingway.”

For me, I knew you were making movies, but it wasn’t until I heard you won at Sundance with Whiplash and I finally got to see it that I was thinking, “Holy fuck, he’s really good.” It was the most gratifying thing ever. It really felt like, not to be creepy, but like, “Wow, this movie is almost perfectly made.” It’s like when people cheer because they think Beyoncé is singing to them. I couldn’t distinguish how much of it was because it was coming from you and I knew you or how much of it was because of the drumming. But then, now that I’ve had the privilege of doing a very small bit for the new movie, both on the music side and the tiny role you surprised me with—that was the most terrifying thing I’ve done all year…

CHAZELLE: [laughs]

WALLACH: Really, because I didn’t want to disappoint. I was like, “Yo, this is my friend who’s a really great filmmaker and he’s thinking of me because he knows me, but I’m super unqualified.” I just really didn’t want to fuck it up and be the sore thumb in a great movie.

CHAZELLE: [laughs] I would have blamed Hurwitz because initially that was his brilliant stroke. I’ve got to give him credit.

WALLACH: Oh man. Well, the thing I wanted to say was watching you on set—there’s something in your work, and maybe what we were trying to do with the band originally, that feels like it’s always trying to save things from the past that are really special but without being nostalgic, trying to figure out the modern way of doing classic.

CHAZELLE: I feel like that’s you too, no? Maybe we both came into the band like that, or maybe the band helped shape that on both of our ends. You talked a lot about the idea of song writing—what song used to be able to do, that doesn’t really exist anymore, that’s maybe become too ironic or coated in pop culture. Especially in the recent solo stuff, you’ve been trying to tap into more earnestness—even though that almost has a bad rap, but that’s same kind of art I’m into.

WALLACH: Are you 30 yet? [laughs]

CHAZELLE: Yeah, now I am.

WALLACH: So we both just turned this corner, and it doesn’t mean anything, really, but I think high school and your 20s is like “ironic time” and then you confront that you can’t evade reality anymore. You can’t use irony as a way of disengaging with the difficult or emotional aspects of life. To leverage those things that are common to everybody, and to present them in a way that’s sort of naked, is more courageous in art than constantly trying to be evasively too cool.

One of the big challenges I’ve thought about in making this record is that the role of computers has become so inescapable and computers offer so many possibilities for creativity, but they also make you lazy. They make it so convenient to do things a certain way that almost everybody goes for that default position. A lot of people can make Calvin Harris beats in his bedroom for no money, on the laptop he’s writing his high school papers on. It’s so much easier to use the default sounds in the synthesizers in Logic than it is to make your own thing or to learn how to play an instrument.

Similarly, I’ve shot music videos where stuff is moving at light speed, but because we were using film, we had to keep reloading. It takes forever. I feel like we’re going through this transition where everyone’s trying to figure out what the machines and computers are good at, and what the appropriate balance of responsibilities is between the human and machine. With my music, I’m trying to really think carefully where they can each fulfill their strong suit.

I don’t know, in the movie world, how you think about that. What is the right role of computers in the stuff you’re doing? Do you worry about “being vintage”?

CHAZELLE: I sometimes worry about that. Right now, I think we’re in a time where there’s this appetite for vintage. We’ve suddenly become aware of how dominant computers have become, so the backlash has permeated in popular culture more than it has before. I would hate to think I [am] buying into anything as part of a fad, so I guess I try not to think about it and focus on the stuff I like to make.

WALLACH: But could you make a blockbuster, comic book, superhero movie that retains what you love about movies?

CHAZELLE: I used to think there was, but now I’m not so sure. The more I make stuff, the more I become aware of when I feel like I’m making bullshit or feel like I’m making something I can stand behind. When you’re a kid, you’re excited to make anything; you don’t really have a quality control so much. Now I certainly have that quality control thing going on—sometimes it’s actually not a good thing. One thing that kids have as artists that adults lose is the ability to produce and produce without checking themselves. I find that every next thing I make, I’m more second-guessing, it becomes harder. The more you realize what you’re good at, and conversely what you’re not good at, the more you start to pre-check yourself into boxes that probably aren’t healthy.

WALLACH: There’s something cool about it, though, too. I noticed, when I was on set for your new movie, a lot of your work was trying to bring the right emotions out of the actors and capture the subtly that you envisioned.

In a certain respect, in a movie, you inevitably have a lot of people doing a lot of different jobs because that’s the only practical way to get it done. When you make a record, you can still be an auteur, because you can make a whole record without anyone’s help if you want. I started moving in this direction on this record, where the particular identity of your taste is actually your job. In this record, I even brought in some ideas that I learned from the investing world. [laughs]

The reason companies work is because you’re able to get a lot of people doing the work; it’s not because of this visionary. Steve Jobs didn’t make Apple; it was a bunch of people. The building of the right team is an art in and of its own right. That’s a really high leverage role—how do you use your taste to pick the right people and then give them a long leash to do what they’re really good at and surprise you? Basically, allow yourself to act as a filter, as a collage artist.

I used session players on my record. I used this guy Jim Keltner, who played on all the George Harrison albums. I wouldn’t have a clue in the world what to tell him exactly to play, but I knew he was the guy. Listening to what he did, I was then very able to say, “That is exactly right. That thing you just surprised me with is amazing. We have to do more of that.” In a sense, you don’t end up doing much of the creation; you’re just a shepherd. Your role is to make sure the final thing ends up really good.

CHAZELLE: That sounds exactly like working on set. How different was this process for you opposed to when you were part of a band?

WALLACH: Writing the songs was me in a room and I loved it. I’m not a super prolific creator, I don’t make stuff everyday, and I don’t have a soundtrack constantly playing in my head. I think I had years and years of pent-up aesthetic ideas that I wanted to express. I would even try to lean on my wife, who was my fiancé while making most of the record. I’d try to get her opinion and she would force me to make the decision. She’d say to me, “This is your record, there’s nobody else who knows what’s right.” There was something incredibly exciting and relieving about that. But then the flipside is that I feel like there’s something really liberating about being in a room with five dudes. [laughs] Because if you don’t have an idea, you can defer to someone else. It’s like having a baby with someone—it’s not a clone of you, but it’s partly you.

CHAZELLE: I remember the first time I heard some of the solo stuff was [when] you played some in your car for me. You told me how you’d been recording it in your room. At that point, the tracks were just piano and vocals. It seemed like the antithesis of the most recent work, which was part of Chester French and very produced, lots of layers of sound, filled to capacity. Was that part of the relief?

WALLACH: Yeah. In Chester French I felt like I was fighting to have things be as simple and naked as possible, to let the songs be the main event. Max, in a similar way, was more focused on doing interesting things with sounds and textures. The solo thing was the opportunity to put 100 percent of the energy into the part that I’m good at—I’m not good at synthesizers and playing a million instruments; that’s Max’s brilliance. The original incarnation [of the solo music] was just going to be piano and vocals, nothing else. I almost wanted it to be shocking how simple it was. Over time I drifted from that idea.

I was playing the record for friends, specifically for Pharrell, and he said this one song really needed drums on it. I thought, “I don’t want to compromise on this focused statement that doesn’t involve a lot of production,” but it was, ultimately, what was best for the song. That was a compelling argument. But writing it on piano with vocals, and only have lyrics, melody, and chorus—that’s like writing the script. Once I’ve written a song, I’m almost just as happy to have someone else record it or sing it. You get to do both sides, because you’re writing the thing and directing it; in my case, my strength is writing and then, as a producer, I’ve tried to get out of the way—let the songs be the main event and not distract from them with sounds that demand attention in their own right. I’ve almost used boring sounds. I mean, beautiful sounds, like piano and string and orchestra, but sounds that are so familiar that you almost don’t even notice them.

CHAZELLE: Unlike on my end, you’re not just the writer; you’re also the performer. Do you approach the performing as a totally different thing? Like, “I’ve written the script, now I have to execute them”? Or do you know how you’re going to play it as you write it?

WALLACH: You figure it out as it goes, but I have to be both the director and the actor. I didn’t have a producer on this record. I’ve always felt that singing is half technical, half taxing. You’ve got words, a melody, and an instrument, and you have to do justice to the words. You’re just a medium for people to feel the song. Having a producer would be an interesting experience for me, but it would be hard to find someone who I trust. I would almost be more interested in having you produce a record, where you’re trying to make judgments about how well I am or another singer is capturing the emotion that is intended.

Let me ask you one last question, Damien, and then you can ask me one. As a filmmaker or artist, what do you feel like you still suck at and what do you think, if you got better at it, would dramatically change the quality of your work?

CHAZELLE: There’s a bunch of things that I’m trying to be better at, but I feel like I still suck at timing, which is ironic because I was a drummer. I always find that things that feel fast to me on set, in the cutting room will feel slow and vice versa. I’ll have such different reactions to things once I’m not on set, once I’m in the cutting room. I’ve learned that so much of directing is, when you’re on set, trying to make an educated guess as to what you’ll want to see in the cutting room. Invariably, it looks, feels, and sounds completely different in that context than it does amidst the swirl of set. That’s such a crucial job of a director, and maybe everyone sucks at it, in which case, great, but I could be a lot better at it. I get better with every step, but I think that’s the big difference between making movies and something like writing a book, where the initial act of creation but also the act of looking back and revising, can be tied up in one; whereas just by the logistics of movie making, they tend to be split in half.

How about you?

WALLACH: No, you can’t ask me the same question.

CHAZELLE: Oh that’s fucked up. Okay… [pauses] If someone told you that you had to cut all the work out of your life except for one avenue—like you could make music, but you couldn’t work in investment or you could work in business, but you couldn’t make music—which would you pick? Do you even see them as different or do you see them as one piece of work?

WALLACH: I see them all as being part of the same thing, and for me, that thing is how do I push the world in a direction that I want it to go with as much leverage as possible? By leverage, I mean, how does an hour of my time have the biggest impact it can possibly have?

If I had to cut something out, I’m not sure—music and art for me are so sacred, I don’t want to be corny, but it’s almost religious or ethical. I don’t think its value is the same as value that exists in the economic or political worlds. A lot of the tension in art comes from the intersection of art and commerce—that’s the struggle that’s been around forever—but I think the reason that’s a struggle is because you’re sitting in a room writing a script, making a movie, or cutting it with one other person, or I’m in my bedroom writing songs on my piano, nobody else is there; no one’s judging it. I’m just doing it because I’m compelled and I want it to be beautiful and express something about me that I can’t express in other ways.

But then, ultimately, the rubber hits the road and you realize the way people will judge this is based upon who says its cool, how much money it makes, whether Interview wants to cover it, whether someone will put me on a television show. To me, those aren’t the things that make it valuable or not. Of course I want people to hear and enjoy it, I want to be communicating with other people, but it’s fundamentally hard to shoehorn art into an economy. Yet that’s somehow the only way that we’ve found to make it happen.

So I guess, if I had to give up any part of my professional life, it would be music and it would become a hobby. That’s when I enjoy it most. But when I’ve done that in the past, you get frustrated that other people don’t take your work seriously because, “This isn’t your job. You’re not doing it professionally.” In that way, it’s not real. So what I like, by contrast, in investment and business, is that there’s zero ambiguity. You measure it by the real outcomes it produces and create value by helping people do what they’re doing for less money, or produce more value for the same amount of labor.

The reason I invest in technology is it’s the only work humans do that actually is creative. All other types of economic activity are just moving money from one pool to another, whereas technology is what allows us to create value out of thin air. There’s something about that that is really conciliate with art. It seems like for an hour of my time there, I can produce a lot more impact. 

D.A. WALLACH’S TIME MACHINE IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE, VISIT THE ARTIST’S WEBSITE.