3LAU disregards industry conventions and discusses how his frustration with dance music led to Ultraviolet [Interview]
Justin Blau has toured the world, created a record label, and raised enough funds to build four schools in Guatemala. Despite having done all of this by the age of 27, he will dismiss compliments about his achievements in favor of discussing what he will do. What he has done is never enough. What he will do is what he finds interesting. The Las Vegas native can now add releasing a full length album to his list of accomplishments, and for many fans, the fact that this is only his inaugural album comes as a surprise.
More popularly known as DJ and Producer 3LAU, the artist is one who “early” adopters of electronic dance music claim as their own. His ascension began after releasing hit remixes and touring colleges throughout the country while he attended Washington University in St. Louis. After gaining momentum through his remixes, he starting releasing originals, leading to breakout single “How You Love Me.” The track took the electronic music world by storm, and Blau became a major player in a scene that was coming into its own within mainstream America. To this day, he maintains that his success is partially a product of the transition that the industry was going through at the time he started his career.
As electronic dance music cemented itself as a pillar of American pop culture, Blau joined the ranks of artists like Steve Aoki, Audien, and Dillon Francis who withstood the test of time by being able to evolve and grow with the changing industry. DJs and Producers were suddenly the faces of major brand campaigns, scoring their own TV Shows, and selling out stadiums. Blau rode this wave with the best of them, and has done everything from featuring NFL star Rob Gronkowski and WWE Personality Mojo Rawley in his music videos to being the face of a Marc Jacobs x GQ fashion mini doc.
Many artists reflect upon their ascension into notoriety once they have ‘made it’ as inevitable. Blau discusses his career with a refreshing sense of realism when it comes to his decision to pursue music full time. He admits that, for all intensive purposes, his life was planned out for him, and that plan culminated in a career in finance:
“Everybody has to be realistic. Right? We can’t bet on our passions all of the time. We can focus on our passions when we have free time, but we can’t plan on them to have a sustainable lifestyle. It just so happens that when I was in college, I got very lucky. Both my business passion and my music passion converged, and I took the opportunity because I knew it was the only shot I would ever have.”
Blau had an academic full ride at Washington University in St. Louis, and his parents and professors became increasingly concerned when his grades began to decline rapidly Junior year. A’s and B’s became C’s and D’s as Blau left town every weekend to play at colleges across the country. This was the beginning of the end for his corporate finance career, and the birth of the musician we know today.
The 3LAU of today, though, is very different than the bright eyed kid who dropped out of college to risk it all and pursue his dreams. His new album, Ultraviolet, is an unapologetic expression of his frustrations with the music industry, and his desire to play by his own rules.
“I make music because I want it to touch people on a very deep level. I don’t make music to be famous. That is not a goal, and that has never been a goal. Having a fan base is a by product of creating music that touches people.” – 3LAU
As many artists have revealed, there is a certain pressure when a career is gaining traction to create the next hit, and to keep that momentum going. For the first time, Blau discusses, he has created music with no regard to the popularity or radio-worthiness of the tracks. Ultraviolet is the essence of him in aural form, and he makes it very clear that the album was his chance to do everything his way.
Even the album’s release strategy did not adhere to industry standards. Tracks off of the album were released over a year and a half long period before the full Ultraviolet release. To give context, a typical album will tease a few single releases 6-8 months out from the full release, making Ultraviolet’s runway almost double that of the typical album.
“For the first time of my career, my goal was just to make something that I wanted, and I hoped other people would like it too. The vision of the album was created in 2016, but it took so much time to actually figure out how I wanted to achieve the vision sonically.” – 3LAU
“Fire” was the first track that contained the combination of instrumentals and electronic production the producer was going for, and he states that he finally created the full embodiment of the sound he was aiming to achieve in track “Star Crossed.” From there, the creative process became much quicker.
It becomes clear upon listening to Ultraviolet that a vast majority of the tracks have the capacity to become their own separate and distinct radio hit. Blau has managed to create music that can appeal to the most passionate electronic fan and the most mainstream pop fan.
This cross-appeal would usually signify a compilation of tracks with formulaic dance chords and enamoring vocalists complemented by one or two authentically electronic songs. For Ultraviolet, this is not the case. It is an experimentation of instrumentals, disco, bass, and the best of commercial house. No two tracks are alike, and none blend into the background.
Despite the energetic nature of the album upon first listen, Blau points out that if listeners really absorbs the lyrics and undertones of each track, they will discover that the album is really quite dark:
“It’s very emotional and talks about being lost in friendships and relationships. It’s about all of the positives of feeling lost, because you can feel invincible when you are on your own. But there is also this disconnection, so the album is a parallel of the struggle you feel when you feel alone.”
The concept of ultraviolet light itself is that it reveals things that are not normally there. For Blau, the title was an embodiment of his relationship with dance music, and the album was his way of breaking free of this.
“Ultraviolet light exposes secrets, and in many ways the album releases my frustration with dance music. It releases what I really wanted to do, but what I used to be too nervous to do because I was scared of what the public might think.”
Despite his concerns about the reception of the album, Ultraviolet hit number one on the electronic music charts within 24 hours of its release, and “Touch” skyrocketed to the number one single. In many ways, the album’s success is an indication that electronic fans are no longer looking for another easy hit with a three chord drop and a catchy vocalist. It is also a confirmation that, if the music is good and authentic enough, an artist doesn’t need a major label to make their music hit number one. Blau has continually pushed the envelope of what it means to take electronic music mainstream, all while finding a way to do this without losing the integrity of the music itself.
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez; Cory Hammons