Jai Wolf Talks "Starlight", Coachella, & Experimenting With His Sound
Beneath the brim of the tell-tale red-on-black Commes des Garçons baseball hat, Sajeeb Saha stares warily, as if caught off-guard.
With a beguiling persona that suggests a coy assuredness, it’s not a stretch to imagine the underlying synapses that allow Saha to craft expansive melodies and emotional narratives that carry Jai Wolf’s sound.
The night before, he was onstage at the Do LaB, where he debuted at Coachella in 2015. Today, Jai Wolf takes to the desert to explore his evolving sound at a much larger stage just two days after his latest release—a single called “Starlight”.
“It’s really exciting because it’s like the first song I’m putting out this year to kick off 2017, and I think people like it,” he says, perched comfortably in the A/C and strained fluorescent lights of a single-wide trailer while the waning sun drains moisture from most everywhere else. “I was really nervous at first because it’s definitely a mix of trying new territory, but with a sense of familiarity. And to tread that line so you wanna experiment and move forward, but also retain why people are listening to you in the first place. So we were very careful with that when I was writing the song with the vocalist Gabe Simon, ‘Mr Gabriel’, and I think people are liking it. I’m excited to play it tomorrow, it’ll be literally the second time playing it.”
You said something about combining a little bit of what you know with the unknown. Can you walk me through the past couple of years, through that transition into where you are now?
It’s cool cause I’ve been writing music for almost nine years now, and I’ve tried so many different styles. People go through different phases of what they’re listening to, so in high school I was making guitar-driven music, a lot of synth influences, and then when EDM music got really big, I was making EDM music, and then I wanted to kind of take a step back and make more music that was sustaining and meant more to me. That’s why I started Jai Wolf three years ago, and I wanted it to sort of be true to what I wanna express. And “Starlight” is cool cause it’s like it’s in that zone of that sound that I’ve been trying to find or trying to express for a really long time and it’s a nice extension off the EP we put out last year, too.
Can you put that sound into words?
I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and I’m a sucker for listening to music that makes you really feel, and just takes you back to a place or reminds you of a certain time or person or memory, so the music I write, I wanna always make sure it can affect someone in that way. So “Starlight” is kind of like taking a long road trip with your friends and just being under the stars, and just having a cool adventure.
Yeah, it seems like you do a lot of storytelling through your music. Is that something that you aim for?
I would like the listener to come up with their own story in their head while they’re listening, so if my music can paint a picture for them, then I’ve done my job.
This is your second Coachella, you’re at a bigger stage this year, and then you’ve got a lot of shows coming up afterwards. Can you tell me about your touring experience so far, and what that’s been like?
For sure. We did my first really big North American headline tour last fall. It was really exciting, we got a bus and literally looped around the United States. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, like I always looked up to bands and watched tour videos on YouTube ten years ago in high school just like, “Oh, that’s what I wanna do one day.” So it was really cool that we finally got to do that last year. And it’s amazing, man, like to see the electronic scene in different cities; it varies a lot. And it’s cool to see that there are people out in like Boise, Salt Lake City, Boulder, who enjoy music that I’m writing in my basement, I live with my parents, and it’s cool to see the reception when you’re on the road, because I’m always isolated. Like my life isn’t super glamorous or anything. I still live in the suburbs, and I’m in my basement writing music like all day, for days straight. So it’s crazy to come out of there and see that people are so into the music and so supportive out on the road. So I’m excited to do that again this year; hopefully we get to do something like that in the fall for sure.
Wait, since when is New York the suburbs?
Uh, Long Island, New York to be technically accurate. I say New York cause it’s cooler to say.
No, but it’s so interesting to hear someone describe a suburban perspective in electronic music. I myself grew up in a very, very small town. I’m actually very interested in how you’ve seen touring change with the current sociopolitical climate. I know you were born in Bangladesh, so I wanted to hear your take on that.
For sure, man. Obviously there’s a lot of stuff happening right now, and the tour was in November, so that’s when the election was happening, so we were talking on the bus about it every day. I remember watching the election results in Denver just shaking our heads like, “What is happening?” But the crew is super supportive and everyone’s got each others’ backs, but we had one of the support artists, he’s black, and he noticed that in some cities that you’d get stares if you walked into like a pie shop in Arkansas, like a super random midwestern state, and he was like, “Man, I don’t feel comfortable here,” and people don’t notice that. I definitely get eyes, but I live in New York City, so if someone’s staring at me I don’t notice.
But even in New York City, I got called a f****t on Broome St the other week, even in our little bubble.
You find stuff like that happening all the time.
It happens everywhere!
Exactly, and it didn’t happen that much. It exists for sure, but we all took care of each other and just made sure that we were feeling comfortable. Thankfully the electronic scene is really cool, because it’s one of the more accepting no matter your race, sexual orientation, or whatever. It’s a super inclusive community, and I’ve seen people of all different types of gender, orientation, and races succeed. I feel like pop music is a little harder to break into that bubble. Slowly, barriers are being broken down, but I feel like in electronic music because the music doesn’t face the same limitations.
Do you think that because of the age of the genre itself? And the age of the listener?
It could be. Think about it, why is it that we don’t have a black Justin Bieber? We have rappers, sure, but we don’t have someone doing what he’s doing.
And we have gay country singers, but they’re on The Fader instead of CMT.
Yeah, it’s definitely interesting. And every DJ’s like a straight white guy, but you see that in the subgenres of EDM that people like me are thriving because it’s a little more underground. And we’re slowly making our way up, and I feel like as the years go, minorities can eventually come to higher levels. But it’s cool to see it happening, even now.
Let’s talk about the Jai Wolf brand, I know you defined it three years ago. What does it look like, what does it sound like? How does it allow for you to evolve to the next phase?
I love movies, and I feel like movies have a big impact on the music I make. So everything that I try to express through my art, I try to be—as corny as it sounds—as cinematic as possible. So I try to make sure that when someone listens to a Jai Wolf song or sees something Jai Wolf related that they feel like they’re in a movie. We’re working on a couple of music videos this year, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I would spend hours coming home after high school watching Fuse, or MTV Hits. I want my world to feel like a movie almost, so if you’re listening to it, if you’re part of it, if you’re wearing the merch, I want it to be cinematic.
Who’re you listening to right now, on a personal level?
I love the new Lorde, it’s so good. “Green Light”, “Liability”. I’m sadly overlapping with her tomorrow so I’m gonna miss it. I haven’t seen her yet, but I really want to. But I’m excited for her album because I love her first album Pure Heroine, she’s amazing.
Another super impressive storyteller.
Yeah, she’s just a teenager and she has such a way with words. I love her Twitter and Instagram, and just the way she communicates with the world.
She’s like on the level of Frank Ocean, I think, in terms of her control of the English language.
Yeah, dude! I just have so much respect for her as an artist, and I think it’s cool that she’s just killing it right now and I’m excited for her return.
So what’s next for Jai Wolf?
Well, I’m writing a lot of music right now. I wanna write an album, that’s definitely the next goal. Cause we put out the EP and I feel like in the electronic world, it’s sort of through cycles of singles and EPs, but I’ve always wanted to make a cohesive long-form album. So I’m just writing songs right now, and I’m just trying to find that space that I know will be a nice representation of what I’m trying to express, because I don’t want it to be a compilation of ten random songs that I wrote, I want them to have this connected, cohesive feel.
Yeah, and that’s what I was trying to do with the EP, Kindred Spirits, which was six tracks. So now I have to do that with almost twice as many. But I’m excited. I’ll definitely release other singles this year for sure, but I think hopefully we can do an album for 2018, but we’ll see. We’ll work our way up.
Stay tuned to Milk for more from inside Coachella.