Producer Sessions 020: Dillon Francis on ‘This Mixtape is Fire.’ turning five [Interview]
On August 14, 2015, Dillon Francis delivered his highly anticipated This Mixtape is Fire. EP. It was the follow up to his debut LP, Money Sucks, Friends Rule, and a much needed rejuvenation of the then oft-neglected moombahton genre. But it wasn’t the moombahton that Dave Nada coined at a Washington, DC house party in the late 2000s—this was Francis’ version of the moombahton genre.
With tracks like “Coming Over” with Kygo featuring James Hersey, “Bun Up The Dance” with Skrillex, “What’s Your Name” with Calvin Harris, and “Bruk Bruk (I Need Your Loving),” This Mixtape is Fire. will forever be timestamped as one of the Latin Grammy-nominated artist’s greats.
Amid murmurs surrounding the future release of This Mixtape is Fire. 2, Dancing Astronaut caught up with Francis to discursively celebrate this auditory landmark.
Francis: “Hey, how’s it going?”
Well, hanging out indoors for the past…however long. It’s crazy, because every weekend we’re used to thinking of fun things to do, but now it’s been reduced to thinking of what amazing food can we eat.
Francis: “Yeah, I’ve been making way more food than usual at home. It’s good, because I’m a better cook now. I’ve been making these cucumbers that I love and usually get at Japanese restaurants, so I’ve learned how to ferment my own stuff.”
Are you pickling them?
Francis: “Yeah, it’s bar food you would get at a pub in Japan, and the cucumbers are super tasty and easy to make. All it entails is rice vinegar, garlic powder, salt, sesame seeds, and a little bit of soy sauce. I’ve been making those, and I’ve also been making a lot of buffalo cauliflower because I got an air fryer. It’s best thing I’ve ever purchased in my entire life.”
This goes into my leading question, what’s your daily routine like in quarantine?
Francis: “It’s very weird, I really did not think quarantine was going to be this long. I mean, we kind of knew that shows weren’t going to return until next year, but I didn’t think that the states would be shut down this long.
My daily routine is waking up and thinking, ‘Alright, what do I do today? Do I make music? Do I write for this Gerald stuff that I’ve been doing?’ It’s trying to figure out which one to get inspiration for, because it is definitely tougher to get inspiration during these times.
I’ve been on this cleanse, and I’m waking up very hungry. Then, I go and drink a shake, putter around on my computer trying to making music, and writing notes for Gerald’s World. That’s pretty much my day. Oh, and then tons of emails. There are so many more emails happening now, which makes sense because everyone’s at home.”
And now we’re here to celebrate the five-year anniversary of This Mixtape is Fire.
Francis: “I know, it’s so crazy. I also saw it was the 10-year anniversary of of Flux Pavilion’s ‘I Can’t Stop’ on August 6.”
What’s the project’s significance to you today?
Francis: “It was such a fun project for me to make. Looking back, being able to get Skrillex, Kygo, Calvin Harris, Bro Safari, and Chromeo, on the same EP was awesome. I feel like that’s something you wouldn’t be able to do nowadays. I also had so much fun with the name of the project, because of course, I loved making the music for it, but there were these ads that I did way back for This Mixtape is Fire. that were really creative for me. They were these little jingles about how This Mixtape is Fire. can help your life.
[Thinking back on the collaborators involved with the mixtape,] Calvin Harris is one of my favorite people to work with. Calvin and I didn’t even get into the studio for ‘What’s Your Name.’ We were just texting back and forth, and he would send me specific things to do like, ‘Hey, take this out and put this little pluck piano in there,’ and ‘there’s this vocal that I found from a long time ago that we could use and manipulate it.’ The specificity of his notes is such a breeze because he knows exactly how he wants something to sound. I also love Sonny to death, and I love watching him work. It’s amazing.”
You put together quite the list of headliners. Did you have any specific takeaways after collaborating with such talent?
Francis: “Yeah, to touch on Skrillex and watching him work. You can really see the hours he puts in and how he knows how to get something to sound exactly how he wants it to. That comes with working constantly on music. As you get better and better, you will hear different frequencies that you don’t want in the mix or hear certain frequencies that you want to push up in the mix, and Skrillex is really good at that.
For example, turning a shitty kick drum into a really amazing sounding kick. It was amazing to watch him work in EQ in the way that he does; it just has to do with his ears. He really knows exactly what he’s looking for, so it’s always inspiring to see a person work like that. He’s operating so fast in his mind.”
What were some of the more memorable production moments while creating ‘This Mixtape is Fire.?’
Francis: “Definitely working with Calvin Harris. He had sent me this piano riff a long time ago, and it was just this M1 chord. It wasn’t the exact same bass as Robyn’s ‘Show Me Love,’ but it was a bass drum that sounded like that, and he said, ‘Hey, if you can turn this into something, I’ll do a song with you.’
I bothered Calvin all the time. I would send him a lot of demos and ask ‘Do you want to work on this?’ The thing I love about him is that he’s the most truthful person ever. He will say, ‘No, I hate this’ or ‘Yes, awesome. I’ll work on this with you.’ He doesn’t beat around the bush at all. I love how dry and straightforward he is because he didn’t waste any of my time.
I remember putting some chords on top of that bass riff he did, and I sent it back to him and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ and he said, ‘You know what? I like this.’ It kept inching forward, then I made the drop and it started coming together with all of his notes and the elements that he was adding in terms of chords and different parts in the drop. It was a really cool back and forth. I really remember the excitement when he finally said ‘Yes’ and wanted to work on it because I had sent him countless demos that he said no to. I was never deterred by it, nor would I be. I take it more as a challenge to get him something he would like.”
What about “Coming Over” with Kygo, your second most-streamed song on Spotify?
Francis: “That song is so funny because it was made in one day. One day, Kygo and me were in the studio together, and I think we passed the song back and forth twice. That was it. The thing that was easy about it was that James Hersey had already written the song and it was already set to guitar. We just added all the production on top of his guitar, so we added some rows and marimba and everything else, and that song was done. After our first pass, I think we only had to adjust the bass in the second verse.
It’s really funny that that my second most-streamed Spotify song was made in one day of my life.”
So my next question is, which song took the longest? I’m going to guess that it’s the Calvin Harris collaboration.
Francis: “No. I mean, it took the longest for him to say yes to doing a song with me, but I think ‘Bun Up The Dance’ took the longest because Sonny was touring a lot during that time. There were a lot of demos. We started it on Skrillex’s ‘Mothership Tour,’ the last ‘Mothership Tour’ I did with him. We had these vocals that ended up being a Jack Ü record, so we had to take those vocals off. Then we lost the session to the original and had to re-create it, and I actually liked the frequencies on the original drop, so funny enough, the final product is our old wav. file dropped in the new mix that we did. It’s legitimately just an edit that we put out. We mixed and mastered it again after putting it together, but it worked.”
What was the most difficult sound to conquer on This Mixtape is Fire.?
Francis: “It was definitely on ‘What’s Your Name?’ I kept messing with the release of the sub on the kick. I think I sent Calvin around 20 versions of the finished song with different variations of the release. And I remember at a certain point, he was like, ‘Dude, I literally can’t tell the difference for most of these. I think you’re going crazy over something that’s not gonna matter.’ Yeah, it was really stupid.
I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know. When I listen to it in the car, one of them sounds really good at some point and another one sounds better with the short release. But then when I play it live, it doesn’t sound as good.’ So there was a lot of me being stuck in my own head on something that that definitely wasn’t going to matter.”
Did you have a go-to synth that you used on the project?
Francis: “Yeah, it was Sylenth. I think it’s one of the best ones besides Serum, which is probably the best synth right now.”
Is Sylenth still your go-to?
Francis: “My go-to now would have to be Serum and anything from Spectrasonics. I use Keyscape on everything now. I also use Omnisphere; it’s one of my favorite synths. I’ve used that since Money Sucks, Friends Rule. Omnisphere is one of my favorite ones because that’s the synth that you won’t really hear a lot of other people using. It’s so unique and has so many sounds sets in it that you can purchase.
If you want a piano that sounds almost like an actual piano—you won’t ever get the sound of a real piano on a synth—but the feeling of a real piano, then Keyscape is fucking incredible.”
Any special audio effects/VST that really took your productions home on This Mixtape is Fire.?
Francis: “My favorite one that I used on almost everything was D16 Toraverb. It’s a really amazing reverb from from the D16 Group. They also have a distortion unit that’s really good as well. D16 have amazing VST and they all look like little outboard VSTs.”
How have your production skills, methods, or workflow improved since This Mixtape is Fire.?
Francis: “I think I’m faster with key commends. I definitely didn’t like the update on Ableton 10 where they made you have to press ‘A’ to get to your automation. I am definitely faster, but that’s the only thing that pisses me off about Ableton. You’re always trying to eliminate how many buttons you press or how many steps you have to take to get to a certain sound, so I always thought that was really stupid. But, the automation in Ableton is 10 times better now with what they did with the curving, etc.
I just hate the fact that you have to press ‘A’ to get to your automation. I wish Ableton would change it back. I’m excited for someone to give me a reason why it’s better, so hopefully whoever is reading this article can message me, ‘Hey, Dillon, this is actually why it’s better…and you’re stupid.'”
What was your evolution like after This Mixtape is Fire., going from dance music hitmaker to dance music tastemaker? In those five years, and by the time you were ready to make a full Spanish language project, you became an industry veteran whose goal was to put on brand new wave makers that people had never heard of. Do you feel more like a mentor these days?
Francis: “Diplo has always been one of my biggest inspirations in terms of being a tastemaker and putting new music in front of people and getting them to understand it and want to listen to it. So I was following in his footsteps. He found me from making moombahton, so I wanted to give back to where it originated from, and that’s what inspired the project. I’m simply trying to make fun music that will open people’s eyes to all the stuff that we listen to from traveling.”
How is your process different when collaborating with producers versus collaborating with vocalists like on WUT WUT?
Francis: “I think my process is pretty similar. My process changes more if I’m making an album. When I was making WUT WUT, I went to Mexico and stayed there for four or five days, and we had a writer’s camp with Milkman, Jarina De Marco, and a bunch of other people. I did the same thing when writing Money Sucks, Friends Rule. I locked out a studio in Burbank and worked on the songs. I didn’t have any writers come in at that time. I was comfortable getting in the studio with people at that time, but not as much as I am now.
If I’m working on an album, I try to lock out a studio, finish up instrumentals, and get in with vocalists because I feel more comfortable having something already done, and it definitely shouldn’t be a finished song, because that can deter a vocalist from wanting to sing on something if there’s too much there. It’s more comfortable for me because I kind of have a place to work from. I don’t want to sit in the studio and noodle because, you know, I’m not fucking Mozart. When I’m making chords, I’m sitting there trying to find what’s in my head with the piano roll, so doing that in front of the vocalist would feel awkward for me.”
Do you have any unique studio habits?
Francis: “I used to have one. I don’t have it anymore, but it used to be waking up at 9:30 a.m. and making the same breakfast every morning: three poached eggs, a piece of toast with butter on it, three slices of turkey bacon, and a coffee with a bunch of sugar in it. All that sugar would help me sit in front of my computer until 8:00 p.m. that night to go through music and make random things.”
What’s next for Dillon Francis?
Francis: “I’ve been writing. We’re still developing Gerald’s World the cartoon, and the Dillon and Gerald episodes on YouTube that are separate from Gerald’s World. I’ve been getting past that creative block and have been working on on some music and getting stuff ready for next year. I have a bunch of new music, but I’m waiting for the right time to put it out. This Mixtape is Fire. 2 may finally see the light of day in 2021.”